thu 22/04/2021

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, St Georges Church, Brighton | reviews, news & interviews

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, St Georges Church, Brighton

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, St Georges Church, Brighton

An affable, freight-jumping, socialist journey with two courteously captivating performers

A couple of rail-roadin' hobos

The day after Trump won the US presidential election was always going to be an interesting day for a concert by Billy Bragg and his American cohort Joe Henry.

The day after Trump won the US presidential election was always going to be an interesting day for a concert by Billy Bragg and his American cohort Joe Henry. Bragg’s 1986 song “Help Save the Youth of America” is, for instance, given added power by historical circumstance, and the closing lines have real heft: “The cities of Europe have burned before/And they may yet burn again/And if they do I hope you understand/That Washington will burn with them.” After the song, however, he says the election actually gave him hope because of the massed support for the left-leaning Bernie Sanders, even if, eventually “25 percent of Americans elected an arsehole”.

Only a small portion of the evening is devoted to Bragg’s back catalogue. The concert is based around Bragg and Henry’s recent album, Shine a Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad, which they recorded on an epic train journey across the States, from Chicago to LA, via the Texan Rio Grande border. The night starts and ends with them both playing this material while in between, just prior and after an interval, Henry and Bragg do small solo turns,.

The venue gives the proceedings added impact. It’s a listed building, an active church with nearly 200 years of history. Inside are balconies all round – from which the view is rather limited - and a gently arched, pale blue ceiling high above. The duo perform beneath a large hanging portrait of a heavily bleeding Christ. Bragg makes the odd jokey aside – “It’s like a church in here”, etc – but really the surroundings add a certain venerational aspect, not so much towards the performers as their politics.

Bragg and Henry start with a thrumming take on “Railroad Bill”. They’re both svelte figures, the former in khaki, sporting a light beard, and the latter more rock’n'roll in a black polka-dot shirt and tie. Between songs they relate anecdotes and tell us facts about the US rail system, how it’s now mostly used for freight except for the “the Boston Corridor” where Amtrak make 80 percent of their profits. They play familiar standards, such as “John Henry”, “Gentle on My Mind” and a tasty version of “The Midnight Special”, making clear throughout how much they owe blues giant Lead Belly. It’s especially freakish to hear Bragg yodelling on a version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting For a Train”, a fact he acknowledges afterwards: the last English yodel on record, he says, was Morrissey on “The Boy With the Thorn in his Side”. But it’s on their version of the melancholy “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” that Bragg’s bass and Henry’s Elvis Costello-ish voice blend perfectly.

Joe Henry’s solo set is slow and songwriterly. Between songs he keeps apologising for his nation’s decision, saying of the distinction between patriotism and nationalism, “my country has confused that grossly.” As a producer he’s worked with many American greats and drops in anecdotes about Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint and Rosanne Cash, and plays his poetic diatribe, “Our Song”, at the piano. He’s likeable but his music trudges rather than sweeping me away.

Bragg, on the other hand, goes full polemic, opening with his 1985 hit “Between the Wars”, playing the topical Anaïs Mitchell number “Why We Build the Wall”, then pummelling us with a livid, righteous “There is Power in a Union”, which causes something of a sing-along, drawing attention to Brighton’s status as an oasis of red and green amid southern England’s parched desert of Tory blue.

By the pair's last set and encore, it’s all very lively and relaxed, in a politely chatty sort of way, and their take on “Rock Island Line”, as a call and response song, is great, their voices sparring and reinventing it. For me, if not the audience as a whole, the evening like the album it celebrates could have done with more such reinvention, and perhaps less of a reverential, nostalgic attitude to these songs. The concert is a success, nonetheless. They're both very engaging performers. When they close with Woody Guthrie’s “Ramblin’ Round”, drawing attention to the universality of the refugee experience, whether as a now-romanticised dustbowl Okie of the 1930s or a contemporary Syrian, it sets the mind going in a useful, positive direction as we head into the freezing night.

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