Billy Bragg & Joe Henry @ Celtic Connections. The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow: 26th January 2017

A bit fanciful I suppose to imagine that Bragg & Henry were taking their train theme a bit too literally tonight with the show arriving almost 40 minutes late, the pair taking to the stage after 10 pm. The reality was that the hall had hosted an earlier event, the upshot a steady stream of people leaving before the end, no doubt to catch their own transport. Unfortunately this included your intrepid reporter so we can’t comment on the finale or any encores.

The train theme of course was due to the duo’s current recording, Shine A Light, an audio verite capture of their train ride(s) from Chicago to Los Angeles with them alighting at stations and recording train themed songs in various nooks and crannies of these monuments to the great push west. As Bragg said early on tonight the American train system is just about the only facet of the old weird America that still works and is peopled in the main by tourists, people too sick to fly or those unwilling to submit to aircraft ID checks. The album celebrates the history of the American railroad through popular song and in this live setting also illustrated the musical journeys of both of these songwriters as they spoke of their discovery of singers and writers such as Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Lonnie Donegan and others.  Henry however pointed out that this was not an exhumation; they were participating in a living tradition, the songs, some near a century old speaking to us as King Lear still speaks to us.

As such, the evening was a delight for those who thrill to songs from the great American songbook (railroad edition) played without frills and delivered with an earnestness and clear sense of joy. In fact, the songs sounded more polished tonight than on the album with Bragg’s vocals in particular betraying less of his Essex roots. The pair sang well together and individually with the harmonies well bedded in after several months of touring the album. Their rendition of The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore in particular was quite haunting while In The Pines and Early Morning Rain also benefited from the chemistry. Equally they were able to be rambunctious with Rock Island Line and The Midnight Special quite rousing and the sight (and sound) of Bragg yodelling on Waiting For A Train was worth the price of the ticket in itself.

Of course there was mention of current events in the States with Bragg and Henry bewailing the proposed wall. In their short individual slots halfway through Bragg in particular pointed his guitar at the POTUS with his updated version of The Times They Are A changing (Back) along with a song for the inauguration (Accident Waiting To Happen) and a song to solidarity (Between The Wars), all to resounding approval from the audience. Henry’s solo set was less upfront although he presaged it with his admonition on behalf of his American peers that “this is where we are but not who we are”.   Trampoline and After The war reminded us of his own work but it was his cover of Freedom For The Stallion (dedicated to the late Allen Toussaint) that hit the button. This was sublime, a soul searching comment on the eternal fight for freedom.

A great night and the pair should be commended for reclaiming a bunch of songs that often seem to be relegated to impromptu singalongs or open mic covers; instead restoring them into their proper place in the American song tradition.

 

Author: Paul Kerr

Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.

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