In August 2016, Billy Bragg, world-famous song-writer and political activist, joined forces with Grammy-award winning artist American artist Joe Henry and released Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad. This album’s recordings was highly different from what these two artists are normally used to. Straying away from big studios and large productions, Bragg and Henry hopped on a train right across America, stopping along the way and recording old classic songs from History that they felt summed up the ethos of the Great American Railroad and the people that rode them.
The tour supporting the release of this album brought Billy Bragg and Joe Henry over to Dublin as part of the Temple Bar Trad Fest 2017. The venue for this sold out event was in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and stunningly intimate venue for such a gig. The stage was set up very simply, with two microphones set in the middle of the stage with a few guitars set out for both performers and a piano politely placed in the corner of the stage.
Taking to the stage at exactly at half eight, Bragg and Henry stepped on the stage with a subtle introduction by the Bishop of St. Patricks. With a subtle Hello the pair went straight into their first song, Railroad Bill the first of the tracks played from Shine A Light. The pair duetted with some lovely harmonies and the pairs guitar playing worked perfectly together so that neither player outshone each other.
I really enjoyed the opener of the set, and began to get really excited about the rest of the gig. Bragg introduced the next song and told a story about the surrounding of the recording of it for the album, which was made in a barn while their AMTRAK train was held up on the tracks waiting for the freight trains to pass.
The first section of the nights set was comprised of the two performers together, playing tracks from the new album as well as other well known Americana songs. I have to say, while the set kicked off to a great start, I began to get a bit frustrated five or six songs in because Joe Henry & Billy Bragg would spend a few minutes before each track introducing the song. Understandably, the gig was to promote the album and maybe the two performers hoped that telling the stories behind the recordings on this album would provide a better live context for the tracks themselves, but unfortunately it became very stale very quickly.
In the middle of the set, Bragg left the stage and Joe Henry played four songs of his own. Having never actually been aware of Henry’s music before the gig, I was intrigued. Unfortunately I wasn’t converted. Finding Henry’s lyrics to lack any sort of profoundness to grab my ears and without the support of Braggs rhythmic guitar playing, his style seemed weak when standing on its own. After Henry’s played four songs, he politely left the stage and Billy Bragg returned. Bragg played a number of classic songs from his lengthly back catalogue, including what was the highlight of the set, Accident Waiting To Happen from his 1991 album Don’t Try This At Home.
Billy Bragg is known for his politics and his activism, so I was obviously expecting a mention of world affairs. And appropriately on the night when it was announced Trump had instigated a Travel Ban for certain nationalities into America. Bragg performed an updated version of The Time’s They Are A Chang-in to send a message to Trump himself. Now, as much as the re-designed lyrics were very relevant today, and I agreed with the sentiment and was very proud when I saw a room of people cheer to words promoting freedom and inclusiveness but I have to be honest, the Dylan classic was absolutely butchered by Bragg.
Overall I found the performance a weird one. The amount of talking between the pair was a real put off as I felt it detracted from the live gig experience. It was a shame, but I think in the future if Billy Bragg were to return, I would most definitely go and see him, and as much as I didn’t dig his revamp of Bob Dylan, Bragg still remains one of our most important political song-writers, spokespersons and critic in a world where everyday our need for them grows.