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Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Union Chapel, London, 8/11/2016
It’s almost the ideal gig but it wasn’t until the previous week that your reviewer realised he’d be seeing the great Billy Bragg on the night of the most momentous American presidential election in anyone’s memory.
And where better to see and listen to Billy than the Union Chapel, that most serene and well-appointed of London venues, in the wooden hush of what is still a working church, putting on big name gigs to help with the bills.
On this night Billy is joined by Joe Henry, with whom he recorded the recent LP of ‘field recordings’ of the great American songbook, 'Shine a Light'. There is a very heavy train theme, running through the album like the Michigan Central Railroad, and much of the chat tonight is telling the story of the two men’s journey across the States, stopping every so often to record songs in stations, sidings, and some other unlikely places.
The rest of the chat is naturally about Donald Trump and how unhappy Billy and Joe would be in the unlikely event that he were to win that night (I suspect the world’s biggest Spoiler Alert needs to be hung upon this paragraph). “We’re making Americana great again,” says Billy, after the opening number ‘Railroad Bill’. “That’d look great on a hat, wouldn’t it?”
Being folk songs, the politics are not far away. As an introduction to ‘John Henry’, the pair talk about how some of the railroads they’re eulogising were built by freed slaves. It’s on this song that Billy’s voice really starts to get going into its trademark barking yell, though it’s true to say that tonight we are seeing the older, mellower Billy who’s appeared over the past 10 years, replacing the louder, more rasping yell of old.
And being Billy, there’s a great deal of thought behind the project itself; “It’s not a nostalgia project,” he says. “The process was important. It’s not about looking back at this folk tradition but about joining it.” This is after the two of them have performed ‘In the Pines’, in the form of the Louvin Brothers’ version - although, as Joe says from the stage, if this trip had a patron saint it would be another man associated with the same song, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.
The sound in the chapel is as perfect as it always is, and Joe and Billy’s voices are supremely well matched. The songs, rough and urgent on the record (being field recordings as they are) come across as polished and warm here tonight, casting a glow upon the chilly north London night.
In the middle of the long set - there is no support - Bill leaves the stage and leaves Joe to sing five songs solo, closing with a cover of ‘Freedom for the Stallion’ by the late Allen Toussaint, who Joe produced for some years. Then after an interval it’s Billy’s turn for a short solo set, starting with an apposite ‘All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose’, although if there’s one disadvantage to the genteel all-seater Union Chapel it’s that there was no handwaving or dancing to this footstomping banger of a tune, and only muffled pockets of the singing along you might expect at some of Billy’s rowdier shows. Still, ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’ goes down well, as does ‘There is Power in a Union’. He also slips in a song he tells us he heard during the Occupy protests, by Anais Mitchell, and which he has been singing in his sets ever since, called ‘Why We Build the Wall’.
Then it’s back to the main event for five more numbers from the album, including Hank Williams’s ‘Lonesome Whistle’ and Lead Belly’s ‘Rock Island Line’. While Billy talks about Lonnie Donegan from the stage and his importance, he and Joe take pains to point out that they’re not doing Lonnie’s shouted, sarcastic intro but instead going back to the source to perform the song as the call-and-response it was originally intended to be. Finally, it’s on another Lead Belly number, ‘Midnight Special’, with Billy leaning back and roaring into the mic, that we finally glimpse the power of Billy’s voice as it used to be.
For the encore we’re treated to the sunny uplands of John Hartford/Glenn Campbell’s ‘Gentle on my Mind’ followed by a song that Joe says they didn’t use on the album but should have, Bob Dylan’s ‘Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You’ and Woody Guthrie’s ‘Ramblin’ Round’.
There’s no such thing as a bad Billy Bragg show, and this one certainly lived up to expectations, even if the Billy we see on stage tonight is not the angry young man of 30 or even 15 years ago. He’s moved on, and as this tour and the album show, he’s broadened his horizons and we all get to enjoy the results.
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Anthony Dhanendran watches Billy Bragg and Joe Henry play both solo and joint sets at a gig at the Union Chapel in London
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