Shine A Light, the album of railroad songs recorded by Billy Bragg & Joe Henry on their epic train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles has a rough-hewn feel recorded, as it was, in train stations and hotels en route with the sounds of the passers-by left in place. That ambience doesn’t transfer to the stage of a large venue but the reminiscences and stories of the trip. As both were at pains to point out, the railroads are deeply embedded in the American psyche but, these days, almost nobody travels by train any more. Paradoxically, the US transports more goods by train than anyone else which is why it’s the freight train that figures in so many of these songs.
They began without preamble with ‘Railroad Bill’ and seemed rather subdued. I got the distinct impression that Billy was itching to get political but had to restrain himself. They followed that with ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’, still a great song, ‘John Henry’ and ‘In The Pines’. In San Antonio, the pair stayed at the Gunter Hotel and Billy was given room 414 where they had to record a song – but not a Robert Johnson one as that would have been “blasphemous” according to Joe. The first segment closed with ‘Early Morning Rain’ and I’m still undecided about casting it a railroad song. In the mid-sixties, when it was written, air travel was still something of novelty for the ordinary man or woman and it seemed to be more about the distances between people. That said, Gordon Lightfoot agreed that it was an updating of the image of a hobo hanging around a train yard trying for a ride so what do I know?
Billy left the stage at this point for Joe’s solo set and this was a big ask. Joe is a sophisticated, literate song-writer and his natural style is at odds with the folkiness of the main part of the show. His homage to Cole Porter and the great American songbook was masterful. The song may have been ‘After The War’ but Joe wasn’t big on introductions. He was received with more than politeness by an audience that probably hadn’t read beyond the first two words of the show’s billing. This was particularly so when he switched to piano for a couple of numbers, putting one in mind of Billy Joel, and ‘Our Song’ was one of the highlights of the evening.
Billy opened the second half and it was clear that this was his audience. ‘Between The Wars’ coupled with ‘Help Save The Youth Of America’ have lost none of their significance and neither has ‘There Is Power In A Union’, while Anaïs Mitchell’s ‘Why Do We Build The Wall?’ is a recent addition to his repertoire.
Joe Henry rejoined Billy for their return to the railroad and added a country flavour with ‘Lonesome Whistle’ and ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ before finishing with ‘Midnight Special’ – the original call-and-response version which makes no mention of pig iron. Their first encore was ‘Gentle On My Mind’ which is a better song than memories of Dean Martin might have you believe. They followed that with two songs that don’t feature on the album. First came Dylan’s ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’ which is the antithesis of the hobo always moving on, and finally Woody Guthrie’s ‘Ramblin’ Round’, the archetypal hobo song.
For all its good points I’m not wholly convinced that the show worked in the way it was structured. Joe Henry was perhaps too much of a contrast and Billy Bragg was…well, Billy Bragg. The audience did enjoy a good rant, though.
If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the BILLY BRAGG & JOE HENRY link to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.
Billy Bragg is fine songwriter but I do enjoy it when he goes off piste like this but Shine A Light is rather more in Joe Henry’s territory. The album is subtitled “Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad” but the inclusion of MOR standards like ‘Gentle On My Mind’ and ‘Early Morning Rain’ stretch the point a bit.
The album opens with ‘Rock Island Line’, a prison song possibly referring to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad In fact, the album was recorded during various stops on a railroad journey from Chicago to Los Angeles; no fancy studios so what you might take for found sound is simply what was happening around the musicians. The song recorded in Chicago was Jean Ritchie’s wonderful ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ and you can trace their journey on the album website – or you will when the album is released in a couple of month’s time. So far, we know that ‘Railroad Bill’ was recorded in St. Louis but what happens in Fort Worth, El Paso and Tucson we’ll have to wait and see.
For a basically simple concept, Billy and Joe work in some neat tricks. They divide ‘Rock Island Line’ by singing half a line each on opposite channels (Billy is on the left, of course) and for ‘Lonesome Whistle’, Billy reaches down into his boots for a bass vocal line which he finds again for Sara Carter’s ‘Railroading On The Great Divide’. Essentially though, this is two guys, two guitars and a harmonica enjoying each other’s musical company. Johnny Cash’s ‘Waiting For A Train’ is another top track, perfectly suited to this laid-back approach as is Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ but I’m still not sure about ‘Gentle On My Mind’.
If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click on the banner link below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website. Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.
The idea of holding a folk festival in Skegness in December probably raised a few eyebrows when it was first mooted. The suggestion that it should be held at Butlin’s may have caused a pursing of lips but it makes perfect economic sense. The artists have a major venue and a captive audience to add to a winter tour and the camp and its staff gets extra use and revenue. There are two main venues, both are very large and both were packed on Friday evening.
Entering the Pleasure Dome, sorry, Skyline Pavilion trying to figure out where everything was it was nice to be greeted by the harmonies of Said The Maiden on the Introducing Stage – the third open venue in the middle of the pavilion. It was nearly the end of their set, unfortunately, but we stayed to hear Kings Of The South Seas before insinuating ourselves into the Centre Stage for False Lights. Live, they are less reliant on Jim Moray’s synth wizardry and proved themselves to be an exceptionally good folk-rock band in the classic style. They may prefer to think of themselves as mould breakers but they are actually doing what some bands seem to have forgotten how. Their attempt to perform ‘How Can I Keep From Singing’ without PA was not a success, however; the natural acoustics of the room are not as good as they believed.
At an event like this you can’t hear everything so I was now faced with a decision – Eliza Carthy And The Wayward Band or Billy Bragg? The fact that we now had decent seats settled it and we stayed put for the first half of Eliza’s set. Her twelve piece band are set to be the next Bellowhead (whatever anybody says) and are more than up to the task. As well as old favourites, including a “duelling fiddles” interlude with Sam Sweeney in ‘My Boy Billy’, there was a new song, ‘Devil In The Woman’, slated for their first studio album. Bragg called, however, and we arrived for what seemed like the mellow end of his set with ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’. No! Amongst the polemic he sang ‘Between The Wars’, still powerful and relevant, and ‘There Is Power In A Union’. I reflected that the latter needs some revision with the unions battered down. We may discover that there is power in unity. ‘A New England’ wrapped up his set perfectly.
CC Smugglers followed with the sort of set that only a band as youthful as them could have the energy to play but shouldn’t have the chops to pull off. They have played so many gigs since I first saw them, even ones they weren’t invited to, and have become so tight and slick. Richie Prynne prowled his stage like a circus ringmaster, never still and rarely silent, cajoling and haranguing the audience, the songs and even his band-mates like a true showman. If the idea of the last set of the night was to wind the audience down then CC Smugglers were not the right choice.
The first and last time I heard Moulettes was at very uncomfortable gig and I was looking forward to hearing them in a nice chair. Actually, the best seating for the band is a bean bag with a lava lamp, joss-sticks and a guy dishing out small squares of blotting paper. Sadly the only mind-altering substance available was a pint of Hobgoblin. This was the final gig of the Constellations tour and Moulettes were also previewing their new album, Preternatural, with songs which, for want of more specific titles, we’ll call ‘Octopus’, ‘Nematode’ and ‘Behemoth’. I love the sound of the band, I love their instrumentation and their style but I really don’t know what they are about a lot of the time. “Surreal dreamscapes” were mentioned and I guess that’s about right.
I chatted to Ruth Skipper after the set to ask her impressions of the festival. It turned out that they had only just arrived and gone straight on stage, which accounted for some of the sound man’s problems. At their simplest Moulettes can be two guitars, bass and fiddle but at various times will be added electric cello, bassoon, autoharp, some meaty drums and keyboards and a balance that’s right for the beginning of a song may be wrong by the end. I did discover that the band were looking forward to the water-slide and hearing more music later which proves that I have no future as an investigative reporter.
Next up were Magna Carta. Chris Simpson on-stage is pretty much the same as Chris Simpson off-stage – he’s a raconteur, discursive and philosophical and Doug Morter is his perfect right hand man. Chris has surrounded himself with some very fine musicians but the set felt loose and the decision to give Morter a solo of one of his own songs seems questionable. Back on the firmer ground of The Fields Of Eden things were much more sure-footed and ‘Airport Song’ was a nice encore.
The queue for Tom Robinson curled twice round the pavilion and things were clearly running late so what might have been another difficult decision was made easier and we settled in to hear Sam Carter. He opened his set with ‘Yellow Sign’, the song he began with when I first heard him, and I was shocked to realise that that was six years ago. He has grown as an artist so much. Just when we were settling into the style of his own songs he switched to ‘The Wife Of Ushers Well’, which he sings with False Lights, and ‘Rocking The Cradle’. He played a superb set which showed the power of one man and his guitar. Sam was probably the highlight of the weekend for me.
We got back just in time to catch the end of Tom Robinson’s set so I did get to sing ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ again before The Unthanks appeared on the Centre Stage. With the full ten-piece band on stage it’s easy to overlook the contribution of Niopha Keegan to the group but her trumpet playing was the fondant icing on several songs. The technical problems rolled on so The Demon Barbers XL were thirty-five minutes late on stage, almost taking the gloss off their excellent set which began with traditional songs and ended as a dance display featuring hip-hop, interpretative dance and a fearsomely fast rapper. It’s quite disconcerting to see a stage bare of wires, mic stands and other clutter but they needed all the space they could get. I got to bed by 2.00 am, more or less – it was a long day.
By midday the pace was beginning to tell and the queues for the afternoon sessions were noticeably lighter and some people I spoke to were planning a power nap in preference to more music. No such luxury for your man on the spot.
TradArrr were excellent. They can really rock and with Marion Fleetwood on lead they can turn in a bittersweet ballad like ‘My Laggan Love’ or ‘Silver Dagger’. Between them they boast five lead vocalists, a full string quartet, a keyboard player who frequently added unexpected flourishes and two drummers, one of whom plays cornet. There were hints of high camp as PJ Wright planted a foot on the foldback and Guy Fletcher prowled the stage hunched over his mandolin but they restrained themselves well. It was then a choice between waiting for Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle or scurrying off to catch The Band From County Hell – sorry Jacqui.
The Band From County Hell are a Scots/Irish group from Lincolnshire and are huge fun – ‘The Day My Granny Died’ is a song everybody should hear at least once. They have been around for a quite a while, with six albums to their credit and it seems odd that they aren’t better known – although they don’t lack for support. The first notes played by Blazin’ Fiddles were on keyboard and guitar which is, I’m sure, their little joke. It’s not logical to find them restful but they are so tight and their music is so hypnotic. I promise that I didn’t nod off but I was definitely on a different plane of existence for a lot of their excellent set.
I returned to the Introduction Stage to hear Chris Cleverley whose debut album, Apparitions, I really like. His set, mixing traditional songs and his own compositions didn’t disappoint and he’s already working in new songs including ‘All I Want’ which will send me back to Joni Mitchell’s Blue as soon as time allows. I stayed for Polly And The Billets Doux, who won the day’s vote for a main stage slot next year, and The Black Feathers, who really needed a more sympathetic environment.
The Ric Sanders’ Trio have finally come out as a fun band with their new album and set of old blues, string band and swing numbers. It might be called the Vo Fletcher Trio since it is his guitar that forms the foundation and his voice that sings the songs but when the singing stops it is Ric’s flights of instrumental fancy that take their music to another place. The album is a lot of fun and their set reflected that. Then it was decision time again. I’d been told that Fotheringay would be playing the same set that they had toured all year “only better”. That was true but I missed the excitement of the earlier gigs when the band were still finding their way into, or back into, the music. Nevertheless, theirs was the set everyone wanted to hear.
Since they lost Messrs. Knight and Zorn I really wanted to hear what Steeleye Span would do. With two new musicians to induct the answer was to go back to first principles so ‘All Things Were Quite Silent’ was followed by ‘Blackleg Miner’ and ‘Weary Cutters’ was teamed with ‘New York Girls’ featuring Maddy Prior on ukulele. And they rocked. Julian Littman added a rap to ‘Boys Of Bedlam’ and Spud Sinclair played the sort of electric guitar that we haven’t heard in the band since Bob Johnson’s time. As a final touch they closed with an a capella version of Rick Kemp’s ‘Somewhere Along The Road’.
There is no getting away from the fact that playing the final set of a festival after Steeleye Span have gone off to rapturous applause is a daunting task but Folklaw threw themselves into it with energy and aplomb. Fiddler and songwriter Nick Gibbs was joined by Gaz Hunt on a minimalist drum kit, Martin Vogwell on bass and mandolin and Bryn Williams on guitar and bodhran – not to mention crossing the venue floor on the backs of chairs! They sent the crowd off exhausted but happy.
So does a December festival work once you get over the culture shock of rocking up at 5.00 pm on a Friday in the dark? This is still Skegness and with Storm Desmond blowing around us “bracing” just didn’t begin to describe it but when the wind dropped on Sunday it was mild and pleasant. The accommodation and facilities were excellent and the unsung stars of the weekend were the Butlin’s staff who were friendly and helpful and worked long hours. However, this was folk music adapting to Butlin’s not the other way round. The artists existed in a bubble of stage/backstage/ accommodation or arrived, performed and left and there were quite a few I would have liked to have spoken to so I apologise to them. A bulletin board for messages or to arrange meetings wouldn’t take much to set up and would be a big help, too. But, yes, it works and if you have considered going but not done so I can recommend it.
Staged in a corn field and with three stages linked by alleyways of food and crafts stalls, Wickham proved to be a good nursery slope for my family of first-time festival goers: no intimidating vast crowds and a relaxed atmosphere which built steadily through what turned out to be some swelteringly hot days.
Musically, in the main All Time Grates big top stage it was folk with a twist of vintage pop and rock: from crowd-pleasing sets by folk stars such as Seth Lakeman, Show of Hands, Eliza Carthy, Lisbee Stainton and Martin Carthy to The South – Beautiful South survivors Dave Hemmingway and Alison Wheeler – 10CC, Billy Bragg, Cockney Rebel, Wilko Johnson and The Proclaimers.
The crowd was an eclectic mix of folk devotees and commuter belt families, but overall the demographic was mature and knowledgeable so that at times the main stage had the contented air of a cricket match, with festival goers seated sensibly underneath sun-hats on folding chairs, sipping real ale and completing sudokus to the sound of music.
I soon found out that for a parent festivals have to be enjoyed in the round. My children weren’t there for the music, but found instead joy in the laser quest – a shoot-‘em-up inside a series of sweaty, dark inflatable tunnels – the solar-powered Groovy Movie cinema and the digital funfair, a quirky installation where gamers played Space Invaders while sitting on a stationary bike or racked up high scores by slapping two headless mannequins on their plastic buttocks in time to music.
After a while it became possible to enjoy the music while waiting for them to complete their activities or resisting their pleas to spend the GDP of a small country in the various food and craft stalls, simply via the proximity to the three stages, especially the acoustic stage, where a varied line-up of young up-and-comers and older veterans strummed, picked and twanged their way skilfully through a mixture of their own material and interpretations of popular classics, finding favour with a sprinkling of punters lounging back on the straw-coated ground.
At the top of the festival was the sweatier and rockier Bowman Ales Stage 2 tent – which hosted performances from Edward II, headlining prog rockers Stone Cold and Damn Beats – but I confess that, as a first-timer wanting to immerse myself in folk my visits there were fleeting so I concentrated on the main stage, where a succession of acts filled the afternoons and evenings with musical stories from every corner of Britain and beyond.
From the lilting Northumberland romance of Kathryn Tickell and the Side, to the seasoned yarns of Huw Williams and Maartin Allcock and the acapella oddness of the Spooky Men’s Chorale, it is fair to say there was something for everyone’s tastes, but the big top came into its own later on as the sun dipped behind the food stalls and the headliners took to the stage.
Among the highlights was the life-affirming return to action of Wilko Johnson, the welcome familiarity of The (Beautiful) South’s hits and the appearance of Billy Bragg, whose wit and political zeal brought Friday night to a close. The next night, Seth Lakeman gave a rollicking masterclass of modern folk rock, sweeping the audience along and raising the temperature in the big top.
Despite the passing of years, festival headliners The Proclaimers hadn’t seemingly aged that much and their set was a polished resounding collection of love songs, devoted to Scotland as much as to the objects of their desire. The large TV screens showed that the Reid twins had their committed fans who knew all of the words, but as the night continued, you did get the feeling that most people in the tent were waiting for their signature tune – I Would Walk 500 Mile – like a seashore full of surfers all readying themselves for the big wave that would take them right to shore.
And, duly, at about five to 11, it arrived: cueing a joyous outburst of jigs and a singalong in affected Scottish accents. This provided the most exuberant moment of the weekend, before it drew to a close with a thank you and good night, and the boys left the stage.
The third night was over, but the next day the sun again rose hot and strong. Family holiday commitments meant I had to slip away early, but in my absence the crowds returned with their chairs and sun hats, eager for more.