Billy Bragg and Joe Henry: Shine a Light Tour @ RNCM, Manchester
Ten days after Donald Trump’s election victory, I went along to Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music to see Billy Bragg and Joe Henry on their Shine a Light tour. The gig turned out to be the perfect antidote to my growing sense of doom as I was able to sit back and listen to the pair sing songs, tell stories, and speak words of hope for the future.
Bragg and Henry stopped off at Manchester to play a selection of songs from their own back-catalogues as well as tracks from their recent collaborative album, which the Shine a Light tour was named after. The purpose of Shine a Light was to celebrate the almost forgotten Great American Railroads by performing their versions of ‘railroad songs’ by various American artists. The album itself is brilliant, a compilation of said ‘railroad songs’ recorded at various points during a 2,278 mile train journey Bragg and Henry undertook from Chicago to Los Angeles. The songs were recorded at several stops on the journey in train compartments, station platforms, and hotel rooms.
The pair look to be an unlikely match. However, the unmistakeable low, coarse tones of Essex-born Bragg combined with Henry’s sharp American wail brought something undeniably unique to this reimagining of the historic songs. A particular highlight for me was the pair’s version of British ‘King of Skiffle’ Lonnie Donnegan’s Rock Island Nine, which was sung in a ‘call and response’ technique and brilliantly done at that.
In between songs, Bragg and Henry captivated the audience with stories of their journey and the history of the songs they were playing, dedicating their album and tour to the thousands of hard-working Americans that built the railroads. The two were enchanting as they played and told their tales, speaking to the audience as if we were an old friend – intimate and engaging.
Admittedly, what first drew me to the gig was Billy Bragg. Following a year dominated by talk of hard Brexit, soft Brexit, and Nigel Farage, the opportunity to see a man whose entire career in music has been dedicated to protest and political activism for over thirty years was hugely appealing to me. However, I am now thankful that the gig has introduced me to the amazing Joe Henry, a man who has undertaken various projects with such artists as Ornette Coleman and Allen Toussaint.
As much as I loved watching Bragg incense his Manchester audience with a rendition of Power to the Union, it was Henry’s gentle reflection on the politics of his native land, America, which has stuck with me. Halfway through the set, Henry, alone on stage at this point, sat down at a grand piano to play one of his own songs, This Was My Country. This bluesy tune expresses complete exasperation at the decisions being made in America at the time, Henry telling us that he had written the song after the USA joined the war in Iraq and, as Joe Henry put it, ‘seems sadly relevant again.’
In what seems a pretty bleak time to be alive, Bragg and Henry managed to Shine a Light of hope for the future in a gig that was a fantastic celebration of history: full of reflection, optimism, and celebration of solidarity. What sums up the show best, however, are the words uttered by Henry: ‘this may be where we are but it doesn’t have to be who we are.’