Billy Bragg & Joe Henry

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
The Apex, Bury St Edmunds
15th November 2016

Another Bragg show, we know the score, communal singing and a rant-a-long with everyone’s favourite uncle, except this time is different. Not only does he have a partner in crime, the excellent musician and producer Joe Henry, but the premise of the show is not to point out the absurdities of the world, the premise is train songs. No need for a double take, this is all about the train songs and, as a lover of that genre, why would I complain.

For the unaware Messrs. Bragg and Henry recently undertook a train ride from Chicago to Los Angeles and recorded a good number of train songs along the way, and the results are available on the album “Shine a light” and, ostensibly, this is the show of the album.

That is the logical(ish) stuff done with, from here on the challenge is to avoid hyperbole as the performances are everything that the album suggested they would be. First highlight was the Jean Ritchie song “The L & N don’t stop here” and, as Billy was quick to point out, most American railroad songs place the railway in a social context of bringing jobs, taking jobs away, migration and hopes of a better life. The equivalent in the British tradition would feature the sea, and the few railway songs there are usually concentrate on the builders of said items. However next up came the most celebrated worker on the U.S railroad “John Henry”, a song recorded by everyone from Bruce Springsteen down.

Billy was able to show off his new found yodelling skills on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waitin’ for a train”, and he assured us that he was yodelling in English but as I can’t understand, for the life of me, why yodelling needs to be an intrinsic part of any song I wouldn’t have cared if the yodelling had been in Esperanto. Then came the song that demonstrates the demise of the passenger train in favour of the aeroplane, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early morning rain”. With that came the end of the first bunch of train song duets, and it was left to Joe to take us through to the interval with a selection of his own stuff. This he did with aplomb, although I found it a little one paced and lyrically a touch too dense for my tastes.

Coffee drunk and legs stretched what would the second half bring? First up was a solo set from Mr Bragg, although not much was said the choice of song would indicate that he is not content with the current and future leaders of this planet – “Between the wars”, “Help save the youth of America”, “Accident waiting to happen”, does that prove my point? If not then the closing “There is power in a union” should make it abundantly clear. All points well made and cheered to the echo by the Bragg faithful.

Back to the train songs, The Carter Family’s “Railroadin’ on the great divide”, “I heard that lonesome whistle blow” by the great Hank Williams, both wonderful. Then came the song that spawned the whole idea “Rock island line”, forget Lonnie Donegan, forget Leadbelly the duo have gone back to the source and recorded it as a call and response song, it is still nonsense but it is brilliant. For the reason why it spawned the idea you will have to wait for Billy’s next book.

Woody Guthrie’s favourite song “Hobo’s lullaby” and Leadbelly’s “Midnight special” brought proceedings to a suitably euphoric close. Then with “Gentle on my mind”, the pick of the encores, rambling around my empty mind it was out into the night. Another splendid evening at The Apex, how do they promote so many of my favourites without asking me? Long may they continue reading my mind; although there are some parts they’d best not touch.