Billy Bragg and Joe Henry really looked at home in the surrounds of an old music hall. The pair appearing at Buxton Opera House - a venue not on many musicians’ touring schedules these days - the show felt almost like the middle segment for a revue from the 30s or a 60’s country showcase. Living only twenty minutes down the road, it was a nice surprise for a local(ish) fan like myself, but it was also a testament to Bill and Joe’s love of musical history.
That sense of history is what Shine a Light, the album, and this subsequent tour is steeped in. Both the show and the album celebrate the great American railway songs, with the pair lending their talents to songs by Leadbelly, The Carter Family and Hank Williams amongst others. What’s more, these songs were all recorded live at stops and in stations on a train ride from Chicago to Los Angeles - a method that has only added more to the legend of these already acclaimed songs.
The history of the music and stories from the pair’s travels were interwoven between the songs, often giving much-needed context and adding to the impact of the performances. With just two voices and two guitars, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry brought a new lease of life to these songs. I felt haunted by the ghosts of ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’; the call and response of ‘Rock Island Line’ showcased the pair’s conflicting tones, and the lonesome nature of ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ was a more than fitting descriptor to what real life riding the rails was like.
As the show reached its middle point Billy left the stage to Joe, who took off on a brief solo stint. Although a veteran musician, I had only become familiar with his him through his duets with Bragg. His deep and soulful voice was very different to the harsher Southern English tones of his touring and recording partner; the duo’s antithetical styles working well to capture the tone of these classic songs. Now alone, Joe managed to further impress. His impeccable range and buttery smooth vocal was incredibly soothing and more reminiscent of 60s soul and R&B singers than anything close to country. Despite hearing him collaborate with Bragg for the majority of the night thus far, Joe Henry caught me off guard in the best way. Closing his set with a cover of Allen Toussaint’s ‘Freedom of The Stallion’, Henry again managed to capture the old music hall feel that he and Bragg were looking for.
A brief interval only added to that feeling, with Billy Bragg standing on the vast stage alone not long after. A heckler did their best to kill the mood in the room but was expertly dealt with and the show began once more. Opening his solo portion of the evening with ‘The Times They Are A Changin’-Back’ - an adaptation of the familiar Bob Dylan song - Billy made his thoughts clear on the ascendency of Donald Trump and the problems the world will now face. It was powerful and forthright, and something that even the more dissenting Bragg faithful appreciated. A similar reaction followed for ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’, a perfect follow up given the subject of the opener, and the forever-biting ‘Between The Wars’. Billy’s time as a solo artist was short lived and I felt that was to be expected given the nature of the show. However, it seemed that those aforementioned dissenting voices in the crowd were less than satisfied come the end of the show.
‘No ‘A New England’ - what an outrage! It’s like we paid to see a completely different show’. Yes. We did. It continued where it left off in the first half too. More songs, more stories and the same brilliant lesson in musical history. Listening to Billy and Joe describe their time on the rails, the things they discovered between songs was a big reason why this show felt so special. Their passion for these songs and the people behind them was galvanising; to the point where I wanted to take notes. A show like this doesn’t come around very often, so I wanted to take everything about it in.
Leadbelly’s ‘The Midnight Special’ was chosen as the closer and firmly emphasised why this show works so well. Billy and Joe were completely in sync, their harmonies were perfectly imperfect and the story and meaning behind this incredible song gave it completely new life. Rejoining us for an encore, they couldn’t leave without playing a Woody Guthrie classic - something that brings this journey full circle, at least for Billy.
Shine a Light is required listening and to showcase them in this way, in the building and others like it around the world is proof of just how important this music is to the two people involved. That affection and devotion is what has driven Billy Bragg and Joe Henry to this point and with this show they’ve imparted just a little of that onto me at least.