Traditional to the T in its modesty and intimacy, the occupants of Bristol’s St George concert hall on the 17th January were eager to take their seats and act the part of the Shine A Light tour’s flock in the converted church hall.
There were no huge lighting rigs, no screaming fans, no support act and no cache of cliché opening words to be found in the humble surroundings, only an American craftsman and an English political activist, who soon found their figurative place as the evenings clergymen and sparked up their duo cover of that traditional travelling tune, Railroad Bill.
Tracks from Jimmie Rogers, Lead Belly and Gordon Lightfoot (to name a few) opened the evening’s entertainment as Joe Henry revealed his dry wit during the short song intervals as Mr Bragg beguiled the audience with the pairs experience staying in San Antonio’s historic Gunter hotel (home to Room 414 where Blues legend Robert Johnson’s famous studio session took place).
The couple through their thirty year friendship certainly shared many mutual agreements which were as plain as day to the audience observing. They shared a thorough understanding of one another’s vocal strengths, demonstrating practiced harmonies most commonly found riding side saddle with most dated country numbers (with a surprising amount of yodelling included). They shared a common respect for one another’s own unique style, each generously giving one another an opportunity to perform songs from their own repertoire.
The one mutuality most heavily connecting them however, appeared to be the passionate love for music influenced by the construction of the Great American Railroad and all artists therein, thus subjective to the creation of their ‘Shine A Light’ concept field album and escorting them over two and a half thousand miles to connect with the rugged concept of ‘drifter music’.
Billy visibly took the backseat on high notes and remained committed to the baritone key, necessary to set the foundation for Mr Henry’s high-pitch squawks before each musician had a solo slot to play renditions from their own music catalogue.
Joe Henry was first to claim the stage as Billy strode off, leaving the North Carolina composers cluster chords and piano skills to entrance. Appearing before the audience as quite a humble but nervous character, he explained his attitude towards current American politics and stated that “this may be where we are, but it is not who we are”. His fused technique of ivory key stroking and singing pitch fluctuation emanated a similarity to a young Elton John, with a splash of Randy Newman.
Trampoline and God Only Knows proved to be beautiful tracks but for some reason (possibly due to length of songs), there seemed to be a lack of spark that made his performance enjoyable, but not fantastic.
After a small interval, Joe tagged out and was replaced by Mr Bragg. First off admitting that he had taken a step back from his old analytical writing techniques, he test drove a working progress that he had worked on after a new year’s resolution to put forth new material.
“It has a point and an end” he said and received a justified applause after that surely gave him an inclination to the songs potential. The strongest song of the evening however was unmistakably Between The Wars with its stunning lyricism, exemplifying his true nature as a working-class humanitarian.
His palpable passion for politics and interest in the welfare of those feeling the weight of everyday pressure, has always been a popular trait of his that showed its face in a short but poignant speech. Mentioning Theresa May, her most recent statement to the single market and the current global scare in relation to the new president, ‘Solidarity’ is the word that needs to be remembered in this time of strong division.
As he continued with Accident Waiting To Happen and There Is Power In A Union, the atmosphere immediately increased with the few lighter numbers that rode the set neatly in to the concluding re-jointure of the two companions.
A few stripped back but almost innocent covers later of Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line, Bob Dylan’s Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You and Woody Guthrie’s Ramblin’ Round tied a smart bow around this captivating project, calling on odd pockets of standing ovations before their encore pulled the remainder to their feet.
Billy Bragg & Joe HenrySt George Concert Hall, Bristol - January 17th
Photographer: Nathan Roach - Coal Poet Photography