Billy Bragg and Joe Henry at Union Chapel
Paying tribute to the freedom embodied by the American railroad on the night that would subsequently see Donald Trump elected president might have proved too tough a struggle against the chaotic tide of political history. Luckily for the sell-out audience lining the pews of Islington’s serenely beautiful Union Chapel, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry are made of sterner stuff.
Bragg, veteran mixer of pop and socialist politics from Barking, Essex, recruited his long-time friend and fellow singer-songwriter Henry (a Carolina native) for the project that spawned the current tour and the album that shares its name. Epically ambitious in scale and execution, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad is a collection of covers recorded over a 65 hour period in various trackside alcoves along the route of Amtrak’s Texas Eagle line, from Chicago to LA. The partnership forged along the way is formidable. As demonstrated on curtain-raisers Railroad Bill and The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, Bragg’s gravel-toned voice and primal guitar rhythms complement Henry’s deftly delicate approach to vocal lines and fretboards in triumphantly harmonious style. Through songs written or recorded by such legends as diverse as Leadbelly, The Carter Family and Kurt Cobain, the pair produce emphatic evidence of the ghosts encountered on their pilgrimage.
The dynamic duo separate at the gig’s midway point to offer cuts from their individual catalogues, allowing Henry to showcase his acclaimed talents to the unfamiliar British crowd. The solemn poetry of ballads such as Trampoline and Our Song (played on piano) plot the railroad venture’s path to modern chart Americana and will surely have won some new fans in the process. For his own solo mini-set, Bragg seems to have his sights squarely set on the elephant in the room. Classics such as All You Fascists and Accident Waiting to Happen are here played as if addressing Mr Trump directly, while a cover of Anaïs Mitchell’s Why We Build the Wall, a recent addition to Bragg’s repertoire, takes on a stark new poignancy with the real threat of wall-building in the air.
Despite the election result that would follow, last night belonged to the unsinkable spirit of aspiration and perseverance alive in boxcar Dust Bowl anthems such as Woody Guthrie’s Ramblin’ Round, which closes out the show when Bragg and Henry are reunited in encore. Such light offers hope for the dark days to come.
Photo: Tony Caldwell
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Watch the video for The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore here: