Lincoln’s a beautiful city. I’ve known this for some time but, just recently I’ve taken much more of an interest in the place. My only son, Oliver, has headed there to University and so now I’ll look for opportunities to visit whenever possible.
This weekend offered a chance. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry were bringing their ‘Shine A Light’ tour to the Engine Shed, a former train shed and now a live music venue that sits within the University complex.
It quickly became clear that this was an appropriate setting. The over-arching premise of this new tour is that it provides a chance for Bragg and Henry to revisit songs from the past that celebrate and document the American railroad. They’ve released an album of cover songs they recorded in waiting rooms, hotels and cafés as they took a 65 hour long trek through remote desolation and Southern states. But this isn’t a nostalgia fest, a point that’s made by Henry in one of the informative and lengthy preambles to the tunes. It’s about joining some dots, linking the songs with what’s going on in the world right now and making the folk tradition whole.
Thus, tales of Okies leaving Oklahoma as economic migrants and facing physical challenge on the borders of California draw comparisons to scenes at the Calais jungle. There’s a poignancy as they tell all about looking out of the moving train window as they track the Mexican border. And the sense of adventure and freedom offered by being able to find a new life on a train journey into the wild is explored through reference to Leadbelly, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Robert Johnson. It’s beautifully observed and impeccably performed, just Billy and Joe on a variety of guitars, drawing the harmony, the humour and the soul out of the songs.
The set up is relatively simple; it’s a show of two halves with the songs from ‘Shine A Light’ book-ending the gig. Half way through the first half, Bragg leaves the stage and Joe Henry gives us a small insight into his impressive back catalogue of songs. This is a man with pedigree as evidenced by his referencing of time spent with Kris Kristofferson and Allen Touissant. Billy begins the second half and, judging by the level of excitement this generates across the Lincoln crowd, it’s what many have been waiting for. With trademark. cantankerous jocularity, he despatches the hecklers who are insistent that he plays their favourites. There’s a reprise for ‘Accident Waiting To Happen’ and the classic refrain of ‘you’re a dedicated swallower of fascism’. The crowd are energetically pumped and visibly cheered by Bragg’s insistence that ‘solidarity’ is the way forward. There’s a definite power in this union.
‘I never knew Billy had such a great voice’, whispers somebody sat near to me. It’s indeed true that his vocal range has never sounded better. He’s able to both boom out deep bass notes and yodel sweetly, a gift from the devil’s sparse stocking. He can still do gruff protest or mimic Americana anguish; it’s quite a range. It’s also a perfect foil for Joe’s more elaborate warbles and it’s this combination that makes the gig so compelling.
This is an all-seated gig at the Engine Shed – and don’t we know it. It’s not a space with comfy theatre chairs but instead plastic foldaway seats are laid out in rows. We’re thankful for the interval and by the time of the inevitable encore, I can’t be absolutely sure if those standing to applaud are doing so in an effort to ease their aches and pains. But that might be uncharitable.
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry have educated and entertained tonight within the Engine Shed. They play more UK dates in January and this is a train worth catching.