English folk/punk rock singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and American singer-songwriter and guitarist Joe Henry stopped by York’s Grand Opera House on the 24th January for a truly special performance that was no run of the mill gig.
By George Alexander Moss
Photos by Andy Argyle
After meeting in New York City and embarking on a 30-year friendship, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry are currently on their eagerly anticipated Shine a Light tour. The tour is a great undertaking that sees the duet perform songs from their album Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad, which is a collection of classic railroad songs that chart a five-day train journey that began in Chicago and ended in Los Angeles.
The vastness of traversing the American landscape was expressed through a beautifully simple set up: four guitars, two mics and two men to use them. It was this key dichotomy between scale and simplicity that enabled the audience to imagine the folkloric journey Bragg and Henry had undertaken. After performing their excellent opening track The L&N Don’t Stop Here to much applause, Henry was keen to remind people that: “this is not a nostalgia trip […] Folk music is not dead.” This was clear throughout. Their efforts were not ‘switch off’ entertainment, but a series of created and nuanced performances. They sang these songs for the same reason theatres still put on Shakespeare: each performance was a fight to hear humanity, lending artistic voices to society’s ever present wins and woes. Consequently it became immediately clear that Bragg and Henry each had something to say – not just something to sell.
They began their heart-warming performance as a pair, then performed solo once each before rounding out the night as a duo again. This was effective, and felt like the audience was getting to know two individuals instead of a faceless single act. Together, they performed the spunky Rock Island Line and the foot tapping Railroad Bill, and things had a merry, upbeat energy. However, it is to be commended how effortlessly both Bragg and Henry bounced from A to Z in the tone of their show. Each song transcended time, region and landscape in their multi-faceted meanings, reaching the soul as well as the ear.
Bragg suddenly exited stage right, and it was time for Henry’s solo effort. The song that landed particularly well came in the form of Shook Up The World, a song that Henry composed last summer for the late Muhammed Ali. He prefaced the powerful song, explaining that he wrote it in memory of a man whose athleticism was foremost a platform to show Ali’s humanity. Consequently, the comments between tracks became just as integral to moulding the gig as the songs themselves; decency defining greatness and surpassing talent. After all, the recent election and inauguration of President Donald Trump had a profound impact on the trajectory of the show. In response to this historic event, Henry stated that “this is where we are, not who we are”, the room rallying thus. The songs that followed from Bragg’s solo effort would magnificently prove it true.
Bragg is a famed left-wing activist, and this fact is marvellously thematic in a great number of his songs. This added an energy akin to rocket fuel to the gig. In light of Trump’s inauguration and Brexit, Bragg proceeded to belt out his economically altered lyrics of Bob Dylan’s 1964 hit The Times They Are A Changin’, the title aptly changed to The Times They Are A Changin’ Back. The song was adjusted to musically protest Trump’s Presidency, prompting bursts of cheers and applause alongside the delivery of every reformed line. Bragg also covered Anaïs Mitchell’s Why We Build The Wall, as a response to Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. While the songs were covered superbly, it is baffling that they are still applicable in today’s seemingly progressive times. Nevertheless, they were heartfelt and contextualised with sincerity, uniting the room in a way that few gigs rarely ever achieve.
To close out the gig, Bragg and Henry sang and strummed together, belting out beautiful renditions of Hobo’s Lullaby, John Henry, and The Midnight Special to name a few. They rarely announced the titles of the songs they sung, causing new audiences to hang on every lyric sung. Coupled with their anecdotes and comments, this was a great choice of showmanship, with proceedings evolving like an organic narrative instead of a block of disjointed episodes. Bragg and Henry earned themselves a well-deserved encore, wrapping up their perfect performance with a little bow.
Simply put, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry delivered an evening’s entertainment that York will not soon forget.
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry played at York Opera House on Tuesday 24 January 2017.