This is a slightly revised and extended version of my original review in the Nottingham Post with setlist.
Interesting to see this joint tour in the 700 seater Playhouse (where it sold out at lightning speed) rather than Billy Bragg’s usual haunt, Rock City. It suggests that this is a sit-down show, suited to a contemplative audience.
And so it proves. Bragg is accompanied by old friend Joe Henry. He’s best known here as a producer (Aimee Mann, Allen Toussaint), but is primarily a prolific singer/songwriter. The duo have made a concept album, Shine a Light, mostly recorded in railway stations. The pair fit well together. They’d need to, in close proximity on those notoriously empty US trains. ‘65 hours, 3,000 miles.’
Two sets of railroad songs bookend solo slots from each performer. They’re chosen, Joe Henry tells us, not for nostalgia, but because the songs still have something to say to us. The best is by Leadbelly, whose In The Pines (aka Where Did You Sleep Last Night) was famously covered by Nirvana. The least successful is Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain, which suits neither man’s voice.
The chat between the songs is as important as the songs themselves. It’s the story of a journey more than a standard gig and the Playhouse is an ideal, intimate venue. I particularly liked the story of their recording a Jimmy Rodgers song in the room where Alan Lomax recorded the legendary Robert Johnson (Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel, San Antonio), then finding that Rodgers had lived in the hotel too.
Good to hear Rock Island Line and Midnight Special done live. The railroad material was fun, but, for me, the highlights were a solo song by each man.
Henry apologised for Trump. ‘It is where we are. It isn’t who we are.’ His finest performance was Our Song, a story about America told with Randy Newman-like precision at the piano. He finished the first half with a tribute to Allen Toussaint, a lovely version of Freedom For The Stallion.
Billy Bragg stopped Between The Wars early, breaking from the line ‘sweet moderation’ into Help Save the Youth of America. He made several cracks about ‘the unintended consequences of Brexit’ (Trump being the biggest). He was most on the money when he talked about how we deal with mass migration being the question that will decide what history makes of us. The song from him that struck the strongest chord was a cover of Anais Mitchell’s Why We Build the Wall from the album, Hadestown. The enemy, we’re told is poverty, and poverty is on the other side of the wall. This used to be a song from an opera about the devil, now it’s a description of the state of the U.S.A.
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
In the Pines
Waitin’ for a Train
Early Morning Rain
After The War
God Only Knows
Freedom for the Stallion
Between the Wars
Help Save the Youth of America
Accident Waiting to Happen
Why We Build the Wall
There Is Power in a Union
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
Railroading on the Great Divide
Rock Island Line
Gentle on My Mind
Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You