Billy Bragg and Joe Henry review – songs of hopeful prophecy and words of warning

Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Battle-hardened protest singer eschews nostalgia and favours politics in performance that evokes the romance and escapism of the American railroads

“Brexit, Trump, Leicester bloody City.” In his imitable style, Billy Bragg sums up our turbulent times.

Although this tour was billed as a celebration of songs from the golden age of the American railroad, it was clear from the outset that this battle-hardened protest singer wasn’t going to let world events go unremarked upon.

We’ve got to start paying more attention to the news, Bragg says, and a skilful reworking of The Times They Are a-Changin’ nails it with new lyrics lamenting the backward steps on climate change and women’s rights – among other things – since 8 November. He’s laughing (in a desperate sort of a way) by the time he mentions Britain’s snap election, but uses Accident Waiting to Happen as a hopeful prophecy. Miracles might happen as well, he might have added.

The idea of reinterpreting songs is a theme of the night. Bragg, with his friend and fellow musician Joe Henry, spent a couple of weeks travelling between Chicago and Los Angeles by train, recording railway-related tunes as they went.

The resulting album, Shine a Light (a lyric from the timeless Midnight Special), is a collection rich in tales of personal struggle and redemption, and the songs are realised beautifully on stage. An early highlight of the show is their cover of Jean Ritchie’s The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, a lament for the loss of the Louisville-Nashville line in the tough coal towns of eastern Appalachia.

It was written decades ago but it echoes down the ages, as does, for different reasons, In the Pines, the Lead Belly tune perhaps better known to Nirvana fans (and me) as Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Henry, who is also a producer of renown with artists such as Aaron Neville and Allen Toussaint, has a broad vocal range to complement Bragg’s more guttural tones. They’re not exactly the Louvin Brothers, whose styling they nick for In the Pines, but it works, such as on the call-and-response version of Rock Island Line.

This is no stale, nostalgic run-through of old-timey tunes. As Henry points out, performing and listening to traditional music is important for the same reason people still go to see Shakespeare: it tackles universal themes. Before the musical fetishisation of cars (thank you and RIP, Chuck Berry), trains were what gave songwriters the metaphorical means to transport Americans to a better tomorrow, a quest that underpins the country’s restless psyche. Trains were, in essence, a means of escape, Bragg notes, and I defy anyone to listen to these tunes without wishing they were out there riding the trains themselves, listening to those lonesome whistles blowing.

But it was perhaps always going to end with a word from one of Bragg’s heroes, Woody Guthrie. His song, Ramblin’ Round, provides the duo with the perfect means to address what they call the “great issue of our times”: migration.

“My mother prayed that I would be / A man of some renown / But I’m just a refugee / As I go a ramblin’ round,” they sing in the encore, evoking both the romance of Guthrie’s nomadic existence and the possibility that it can all go horribly wrong. And, after the past 12 months, we know that it can.

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry are on tour in Australia until 28 April


Martin Farrer

The GuardianTramp

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