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.
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‘Gentle On My Mind’ – official video: