BILLY BRAGG & JOE HENRY at YORK GRAND OPERA HOUSE. 24/1/17
Friends for thirty years, Billy and Joe have long shared a passion for Woody Guthrie songs. Inspired to travel by train across the USA (from Chicago to L.A.) via Amtrak in 2016, they recorded an album of “railroad songs” together, entitled “Shine a Light.”
Structurally-speaking, the show worked a treat, enabling both artists to show off their considerable talents, individually and collectively. Airing a succession of insightful, humour-filled anecdotes between songs, it became apparent that their epic train journey west had had a huge impact on them both. Joe, born in North Carolina, seemed shocked at the levels of poverty they encountered on the US-Mexican border, their passage through the American city of El Paso having led them to skirt the border with Mexico, the sprawl of Ciudad Juarez literally a baseball’s pitch away. In spite of such cities existing on one another’s doorsteps, Joe was staggered by how the difference in the quality of life between the two countries was so glaring, so impossible to ignore.
Having recorded a flurry of songs in some of the train stations through which they passed en-route to L.A., they aspired to better connect with the songwriters who first wrote their favourite railroad songs.
‘I tell ya, it’s a funny time to be an American abroad!’ Joe quipped, by way of introduction to his extraordinarily moving solo set, his “Trampoline” ditty – taken from an album that he released back in 1996 – kick-starting his twenty-five minutes beneath the proverbial spotlight without sparring partner Bragg for company. An established singer-songwriter in his own right, Joe has been writing, recording and performing since 1986, having released thirteen studio albums in that time. He regularly referred to his wife in his anecdotes, “his” Melanie none other than Madonna’s sister.
Returning to the stage after a brief intermission, Billy chuckled, ‘Who’d have thought we’d be here in this situation at the start of 2017?’ He was, of course, referring to the political situation, not only in the US, but also in the UK. Immediately laying into a brand new song entitled “The Times They Are A-Changin’ Back,” Billy had the audience in his palm, his inspired spin on the Dylan standard receiving a deafening round of applause. Harking back to his Alt.-Pop roots, Billy then threw “Accident Waiting to Happen” into proceedings, before “Between the Wars” directed the crowd back into political territory.
Reunited on stage, Billy and Joe wasted no time in covering songs by the likes of Glen Campbell and Hank Williams, “Hobo’s Lullaby” proving to be the overall highlight of their second set. Playing acoustic guitars throughout, there was no extra backing whatsoever, which meant that their combined playing and singing had to be note-perfect. Fortunately, they pulled off both feats with ease, their spine-chilling harmonies complementing their guitar-twanging expertise, so much so that the assembled masses were still baying for “More!” following their three-song encore.
Talents come no greater.
Twitter user? “Follow” Steve Rudd @ruddontheroad