The Great American Railroad, something that has fascinated many over the years, the stories and the music, all bought to life when you start to delve into the colourful history of this amazing subject. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry took things one step further when, in 2016, they boarded a Los Angeles bound train at Chicago's Union Station. Along the 2728 miles, they stopped off at various points including St Louis, Fort Worth & El Paso and, whilst waiting for passengers to board the train, recorded a collection of railway-themed classics made famous by Hank Williams, Lead Belly, The Carter Family, Glen Campbell and other groundbreaking artists. This resulted in the 13 track atmospheric travelogue Shine a Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad being released in September 2016. After 4 days on the rails, they arrived into Los Angeles at 4:30am, recording their final song in Union Station accompanied by the first chirpings of the dawn chorus. Quite an adventure I'm sure you'd agree!
Fast forward a few months, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry are on the road, touring the new long player throughout the UK. We were invited along to catch their performance and learn a little more about the songs that they chose to appear on the album.
Arriving at the Exeter venue on a cold Wednesday evening, I was somewhat confused, the gates were locked, there was nobody around and it was only an hour until curtains up, had I got it wrong? was it another night? I was frantically checking my diary when I received a call from my colleague asking where I was! It appears that the show was starting an hour later than I had noted so I did what any man would have done in this situation, I went for a beer.....
When I arrived back at the venue at the correct time, I was pleased to see it was a hive of activity, people making their way up to the hall, old friends reunited for the show and being a mid-week event, I thought that the bar would be quiet, how wrong was I? I queued for a good 15 minutes to order my interval drink before being ushered into the main hall for the all seated SOLD OUT event.
Billy and Joe took to the stage and introduced the show, they sounded great together, Billy’s weathered vocals contrasted perfectly against Joe’s lighter American drawl, working perfectly to create some unreal harmonies that floated effortlessly around the room.
They opened the evening playing a haunting version of 'In the Pines', made famous by Bill Monroe in the 40's and 50's which veered away from the traditional American folk song and used alternate lyrics representing the 'longest train' variant of the song. Another highlight was learning that Billy Bragg can now yodel....he explained that they had the chance to stay at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio and knowing that this was the scene of a famous recording session by Robert Johnson in 1936 (in room 414), they were keen to get in there and lay down a track of their own. Imagine their surprise when they were handed the key to room 414 and shown to the room. When inside, Billy spent time looking for the devil to see if he wanted to do a deal (legend has it that Robert Johnson did the same and sold his soul in order to acquire his musical talents). Billy explained that he wasn't keen on performing the same songs that Johnson did so many years ago so he opted for '"Waiting for a Train" by Jimmie Rogers and joked that he must have done a deal with the devil in his sleep that night as when they recorded it, he found that he had the ability to yodel adding, "I think I'm the only Englishman to yodel in a song other than Morrissey at the end of ‘The Boy with a Thorn in his Side’".....
The duo separated, leaving Joe on stage to perform hits from his own back catalogue and allow him to explain what he gained from the momentous railroad journey, one song that stood out was “Trampoline”, delivered perfectly with just his acoustic guitar to accompany his voice.
The venue was forced to take an earlier than planned break owing to some rather odd happenings on the lighting desk, Joe joked about not being able to continue until they sorted it out but even after 5 minutes of waiting, the abstract lightshow continued to flicker all over the stage, forcing the curtain to come down on ‘Act 1’.
After a brief intermission to charge glasses and empty bladders, we were ushered back into the main hall where Joe once again took to the stage and continued his solo set.
Billy took to the stage to perform hits from his own back catalogue including “All you Fascists“ and “Accident Waiting to Happen” which saw the return of the Bard of Barking’s trademark vocal style which was temporarily forgotten during the earlier part of this evening’s performance. He also played a cover of a track by Anais Mitchell titled “Why We Build the Wall” which I can only imagine was his chance to stick two fingers up to Donald Trump after he announced that he would be starting to erect a wall across the US/Mexican border.
Joe re-joined Billy on stage to finish the show and it was their performance of Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line” (made famous by skiffle aficionado Lonnie Donegan) which sealed the deal for me and made sure that I was first in line at the merch table after the show to collect a vinyl copy of the new long player.
In a little under 2 hours, we were entertained, educated about the great American railroad and learned that sometimes, stage lighting has a mind of its own…..
Billy and Joe are currently in Ireland where they’ll be performing until Monday 30th January, check their website for details of the venues and if you can, get yourself down there, maybe arrive by train for that extra authentic feel!
Review and photography by Steve Muscutt