Whether you love Billy Bragg or loath him, it can’t be denied that he is a showman, still at the top of his game. On the eve of the 2016 American Election, Bragg and his long-time collaborator Joe Henry were set to deliver a poignant slice of Americana to a devoted UK audience, with a rendition of their most recent album ‘Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad’. The album is a wholehearted love letter to the once great, and now declining, American Railroad and all the romantic memories that its associated images conjure, not just in an American consciousness, but in the global one. The show and the album were very minimally created, with both musicians almost entirely relying on their trusty acoustic guitars to deliver.
“This is a place of musical spirituality in London” Bragg commented, whilst observing the expansive audience in the Union Chapel. The 19th Century working church is favored by acoustic artists for both its frankly incredible decoration and amazing ethereal acoustics. Bragg and Henry were to play an almost two hour set, covering their co-operative work, as well as their own original music. To kick of the set the two appeared together, diving straight into their new album with ‘Railroad Bill’ originally performed by blues legend Jack Elliot in the 1960s. Their delivery was awash with melancholy, a melancholy that is a stable of Americana music.
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There was ample audience interaction between the pair. As you can probably imagine, the American Election was a topic that came up frequently. “Depending on the results tomorrow” Joe Henry mused “You might be accepting my request for asylum very soon”. Being present at a performance that celebrates and laments over a lost American identity, at the turning point in American history, was extremely harrowing. Americana represents a fictional romanticized past, a past which comes with an identity which is being rocked to its core in the modern age.
Bragg is a politicized man. His speeches between his songs have become legendary in pushing his political reasoning and agenda forward. Tonight he was to draw parallels between issues across the pond, and those closer to home. But alas, if you know anything about Bragg, you can already imagine what he had to say. Whatever the audience opinion of him is, it cannot be denied that he is an incredible singer who has only improved with age. His voice and Henry’s intertwined beautifully in the space they occupied, and the highlights of the evening were most certainly when they performed together as one.
Both Bragg and Henry, in their solo performances, brought out a district flavor of their own style. Henry’s Americana driven set contrasted interestingly with Bragg’s traditional left-leaning political songs, and the applause from the crowd credited both performer’s in their own way. It was an evening that seemed to carry a lot of weight to it. In its context it was a privileged and unique moment to be a part of; a clashing of two worlds separated by time and united by two very old and beautiful acoustic guitars.