Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Riding the Rails: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry's new album is titled Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad.

At first glance the musical combination of Billy Bragg, beloved son of the British left, and American songwriter Joe Henry would be unusual. But the fact of the matter is that the two musicians met over thirty years ago in an office waiting room at Warner Brothers. Henry’s wife was a publicist with the label at the time courting Bragg to radio stations and newspaper interviews. Their introduction was “the start of a beautiful friendship” that eventually put Joe Henry in the producer’s chair for Bragg’s album, Tooth & Nail (2013), and finally as a partner on their new album Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad (Cooking Vinyl). It’s an album of train songs recorded in various train stations from Chicago to Los Angeles. Bragg, Henry and a small crew set out to capture history, by taking a trip through the Midwest United States by rail. The first track released, as a single, was “Midnight Special,” documented on a video by Ray Foley.

The new record also spawned an extensive tour that brought the duo to Canada earlier this month. The show has two sets. The pair sang together for several tunes, and then performed solo, featuring their own work. At the Toronto performance on October 4th, I was struck by the deeply personal relationship each musician had for the songs themselves. This was no flight of fancy or a nostalgic performance of old folk songs by Bragg and Henry. It was two sets of stories, political commentary and music history all rolled into one. On the latter point, they talked about their visit to San Antonio, Texas and their stay at the Gunther Hotel, where Robert Johnson set up in room 414 and recorded his entire body of work in 1936. (He died two years later.) Joe Henry referred to those precious recordings as the equivalent of the “Dead Sea scrolls” in music. The contrasting styles of the out-going Bragg and the more introspective Henry made for an engaging and emotionally powerful set. The duo’s textured guitar playing and their vocal phrasing, especially Henry’s harmonies, impressed me. During his solo performance, Joe Henry sang “Trampoline” with remarkable energy and range; it’s the best I’ve heard.

When Billy Bragg returned after the intermission the audience knew they were in for some great stories laced with humour. Bragg is not only a fine musician and songwriter; he’s a great entertainer. A typical Bragg performance always includes an historical reference and, sure enough, October 4th marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street when an East London neighborhood prevented a march by British fascists from entering their streets. Bragg has a remarkable memory for political history and makes his points during a concert. He’s full of facts and, as he put it, his musical style is “genre-fluid,” granting him the freedom to sing about anything in either a folk style or a punk style. In effect this is how Bragg has distinguished himself as a performer these past three decades. His songs are as relevant as Woody Guthrie’s and both he and Joe Henry, while lamenting the current political climates in Britain and the United States, often mentioned the relevancy of the old songs. For those of us in the sold-out Danforth Music Hall, particularly on the left, it was an inspiring evening of songs about politics but also about the plight of the less fortunate. “Train songs are about freedom,” Bragg explained. Which brings us back to the Bragg-Henry release on Cooking Vinyl records.

Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad is an important record that refreshes the format and the historical significance of American Roots music. While the subject matter is narrow, the appeal is universal. As listeners we can experience the feeling of complete freedom simply by hopping on a train and traveling through the region of the great American Midwest. For Bragg and Henry the best way to perform them is on the ground, without the safety net of a studio. Consequently, it’s a musical road trip that grants us the opportunity to experience what Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly must have felt as they travelled across the United States in the thirties. Their songs are like diaries that personalize the quest for political freedom and economic justice. It’s a goal worth pursuing in spite of the fact that it may never be fully achieved. On this record, which is an excellent example of authentic and inspired song craft, as we travel with Bragg and Henry, we know that the pursuit is not in vain.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

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