Words by Jacqueline Howell, Photos by Dave MacIntyre.
“Loss, possibility, regret & desire.”
Joe Henry stops for a moment midway through the Toronto show to discuss the rich feelings evoked by trains in our history, culture, literature and music. The audience sits, pin-drop silent, riveted.
It is about the midway point of the Billy Bragg and Joe Henry tour for Shine a Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad, for audiences, the sweet spot, which happens to be in Toronto at the Danforth Music Hall. It’s remarkable to see how the artists tonight have reconfigured everything on the large stage, simplified it all, rearranging something in us, playing and also enacting something pure and unvarnished.
There are but two men on stage, and sometimes only one at a time: Billy Bragg & Joe Henry. There are exactly four guitars and no other instruments. There are no roadies seen, and the musicians tune their own guitars, but without missing a beat. There’s a simple, elegant lighting pattern on the backdrop and no names are broadcast. There are no names needed. People in this sold-out crowd know that Billy Bragg has been a guiding force in folk music and an outspoken but never abrasive activist as well as “the sherpa of heartbreak” for decades. They know that Joe Henry has released 13 albums of original, affecting, beautiful lyrics and music that defy categorization but have influences from rock, country, folk, blues and jazz. Fans tonight are big fans of either one of these artists, or both.
Bragg and Henry traveled to make this record the old way, the better way, by rail, finding new inspiration in old music that was laid like iron track, some of it long ago. They stopped off and set up impromptu simple recording sessions wherever they could, in actual train stations on their route, with all the spontaneity and truth that creates in a performance. On this record, they’ve stepped back and away from not only the studio, but the music machine and the effect is revelatory. There’s a real journey mapped here. While no trains go in and out of Nashville anymore (a fact Bragg laments) a train trip was made from Chicago to Los Angeles via St. Louis, Poplar Bluff, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine, El Paso and Tuscon.
By going way back, musically and in their approach to recording the record, Bragg and Henry bring their formidable knowledge of music and unique abilities to write impeccable, heart twanging lyrics to curate a selection of stirring cover songs that sound fresher than most of what is produced as music today. For awhile now, it’s been time to strip music down, burn it, and start again. And this is a vision of what that can look and sound like. Shine a Light ‘s very creation, its immediacy and its alive sound was contingent on a musical/ railway journey as Bragg and Henry move through what’s left of the Texas Eagle Route, a meandering trail which takes them to the coast, but doesn’t go to Nashville anymore.
This musical journey revealed new discoveries of songs to include as well as some well known classics played live at the Toronto show: “John Henry” (which has new life here) and the gorgeous Lead Belly classic “In the Pines” (made widely known in a brilliant cover by Nirvana in their MTV Unplugged performance/bestselling album). There is a quiet confidence in both of these artists, and a gentle way of approaching the material in their natural vocal styles that gives some songs a dirge-like quality, one that is lovely, important and true. Billy Bragg’s cadence has always been a stirring and sad one, and it must never change. Henry and Bragg sing of ways of life, gone and disappearing. Train tracks that people died to lay down, in a feat that a nation must have believed was permanence itself, now eroded and given way to lonely and dangerous (and ugly) freeways. Towns that sprung up around stations, that were the hearts of communities, now ghost towns, as dead as a severed limb, cut off from their arterial blood supply of people and purpose. Further afield, the industries that went along with the boom, dirty, dangerous, essential, pivotal, all gone. Coal mining, farming, manufacturing. Also all but gone. There’s a purely artistic statement here, as big as any great play or novel you could name. And there’s a call to other artists, listeners, humans, to think about what it all means and what we can do with it in the here and now.
The two musicians have true harmony. Both have a wide vocal range and can hit many of the same highs and lows, yet are distinctive in their vocal cadences, and they sing together like they’ve been doing it forever. And the show is that rare thing: a true democracy. After a set of the new material, each takes a solo turn of about six songs. First is Joe Henry, who floors the room with 1996’s “Trampoline”:
“My mind it’s never been so clear
But I stutter like an auctioneer
As the night has come alive with dreams
That hoot and holler, spit and scream
Every one of them is sick with lust
But every one of them will outlive us
And this time I’m not coming down
This time I’m not coming down
Joe Henry also leads on one of the new album’s covers “Hobo’s Lullaby” which includes a very Joe Henry line sung with devastating beauty ” Lift your head / and smile at trouble”. The metaphors of trains lead to rich metaphors about hobos. Think of rootlessness. Abandonment. Failure. Transience. Vulnerability. Risk. Exposure. Death. Fleeting bouts of comfort. The deepest meaning of the word insecurity. Here’s the refugee experience, highly topical and urgently important across all leading, more stable nations. And there’s the personal experience of disconnectedness that colours much of modernity, too. It’s all there, listen. It’s a double record, which makes buying the vinyl a must. A gatefold sleeve is a thing of rare joy. A lucky number of 13 songs make up the album, including the surprise track made famous by Glen Campbell “Gentle on my Mind” which has been covered over the years (mostly in the 70s and 80s) but is such a surprise and is utterly reinvented here with unheard depths. It’s time isn’t it, for that slow burning 70s energy, the time of Campbell, of Country and Western, of news magazine television shows that took the long view and raised instead of lowered the discussion, of still-close knit families and never-missed Sunday roasts while the world outside was falling apart, as it always is somewhere, as it is again.
Bragg & Henry’s solo work played alongside their compilation is complementary, too. Both are singular talents at writing affecting, heartfelt, honest and true music about love, life and loss. They share a huge musical vocabulary and deep influences and, one suspects, have influenced and inspired each other over the years in a way rare for contemporaries. “Any song from the heart is a song about love” Bragg says before launching into “Power in a Union”.
A Billy Bragg show always includes plenty of authentic brevity, another reason why he is utterly lovable. He points out that trains have a very different meaning in England, where you can jump all the trains you want but you can never escape jurisdiction. The true emotional punch that tonight’s music packs is broken up with an utterly on point jab at celebrity culture (Bragg knows about #Hiddleswift!) and a reminder for us Canadians not to be too smug as our national leader is currently enjoying a lot of favour, to keep a watch out, as we must ever do with our leaders. Bragg is a real, worthy leader (note: the truest ones are humble), one who reads everything and one who reads everything. “Gender is a construct. Genre is a construct.” Bragg likes to think of himself as “genre-fluid”. And the terrific “Accident Waiting to Happen”, which suddenly sounds political tonight, when we always claimed it as one of our beloved angry love songs, is as far from “John Henry” as you can probably get, musically and thematically. But it works. Genre-fluidity.
In a darkened music hall, a writer scribbles illegible notes on the back of a resume: snippets of quotes from the stage “Room 414” “Jimmie Rodgers’ ghost” “The rise of the anti-immigrant right”, song titles “Accident Waiting to Happen” and observations “empathy” “Are love songs really political songs and vice versa?” but in the end all that is put away in favour of experience. It would take three or four nights watching this tour to begin to capture it all and not be overwhelmed by the immense trip embarked upon. A review of this work and this show deserves weeks of in-depth research and reverent musical study, and a paralytic fear of attempting to write about something transcendent and failing, or worse, being seen, cause a days-long stall. But the self-imposed pressures to be the tiniest part of a news cycle prevail, and after all, what is happening here is actually news. Good news.
At the meet and greet, the two music men, travelling light, are within moments at the front of the house, sitting patiently for autographs, photos, and kind before clumsy fan utterances. Squinting into the light, clutching a record album, a writer has no chill when faced with all of this: “I feel like I know nothing about music now, and need to start again.” Clumsy, so clumsy. “Blimey” might have been the funny answer from the Bard of Barking. It’s a bit of a blur. But, anyway, this is what music discovery feels like, and should be, what can happen, even in 2016. What must happen in 2016 and the year after this. There is a lot of gold in them hills, for miners, for real musicians to find and to inspire us with. There’s hope. And there’s the deep wisdom, imparted casually from the stage, that any song from the heart is a song about love.
Billy Bragg’s song “Power in a Union” has always seemed boldly straightforward. Bragg believes in the power of unions and the ongoing need for them, even as the places where dangerous or unstable work is done has moved further away from Main Street, USA/UK or Canada. The cry always bears repeating, even as industry and business and the globe has changed in the last century and industrial life of the west has largely ended and moved to less regulated and more exploitative zones. But a union can mean a lot of things. It has a particular meaning in the world of trains as well as in politics. There’s the lifelong special relationship with a musician and his fans, the energy that flows as a current through a room where everyone is in their right place, participants in something important, not just punters. And it’s a union that is utterly different than playing at home. This union is crucial when a great artist comes to your city. No excuses. And this song, one of Bragg’s earliest works when all of his records sounded spare, stripped down and perfect, his version of music in 1986 that rejected all the flouncing and fancy dress of the era, is so pure, just a man singing his heart with a guitar, and remains unchanged. But this latest record, the project surrounding its creation, and this new musical chapter for Bragg is about metaphor. It’s about travel, and trains, and so it’s a work of imagination and romance, industry and adventure for the hobo in us all. And long before “Power in a Union” is played in a solo set of Bragg songs on this night, the phrase becomes the perfect title for a feature. There is a righteous, graceful power in this artistic union between Billy Bragg and Joe Henry.
With thanks to Billy Bragg & Joe Henry