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article imageReview: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry share a stage at intimate London gig Special

By Adrian Peel     Aug 18, 2016 in Music
English singer/songwriter Bragg and American folk musician Henry played songs off their forthcoming collaboration — as well as some of their solo material — to around 100 fans at St. Pancras Old Church in London.
Ahead of a two-month American jaunt in September and October and a subsequent 11-date UK tour in November, Messrs Bragg and Henry treated an audience packed into one of London's oldest churches to what we can expect to hear when their new album, Shine a Light - recorded during a 65 hour train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles via Texas - is released on September 23.
"Dearly beloved," announced Bragg right before "Railroad Bill," the first song of the evening. "We're gathered here today in the sight of King's Cross to play some railway songs for you."
Tonight, August 17, was the duo's second gig together (they had played in Summerhall in Edinburgh two nights before). Throughout the show, Bragg tended to sing low down while Henry's higher harmony parts, particularly on the first couple of songs, recalled the Everly Brothers.
Railroad travellers: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Railroad travellers: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
After stirring second number "In the Pines," Joe, married to Madonna's sister Melanie Ciccone since 1987, sang the evocative "After the War" off his 2011 LP, Reverie, while his singing partner took a backseat. Returning to the new album, a vigorous "John Henry" came next followed by "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore."
As expected, Bragg shared some of his political opinions, though they were kept to a minimum. He expressed support for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and compared the refugees amassed in Calais trying to reach the UK to Mexicans attempting to enter the US illegally, but most of the talking concerned the fascinating experiences he and Joe had while making Shine a Light.
Typically, they would reach a destination and cut a song or two in the station's waiting room while keeping an eye on the train so it didn't leave without them. The Barking-born maestro explained how they recorded three songs in Chicago's Union Station (including their slowed-down take on "Rock Island Line") and how the Hank Williams classic, "Lonesome Whistle," was done in an empty sleeping compartment on a train leaving San Antonio.
Bragg also recalled meeting the Queen ("Do I want to meet the person who gave Bobby Moore the World Cup? Of course I do!"), discussed why he and Joe had decided to make the record and explained the history behind parts of the American railroad, such as how the tracks that cross the desert between San Antonio and L.A. were predominantly laid by Chinese labourers.
Singing acapella: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Singing acapella: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Henry also spoke, revealing his love of the blues and recalling his memories of seeing Juarez, Mexico across the way when they found themselves in El Paso, Texas.
As well as the tracks recorded in waiting rooms, at other parts of railway stations and on trains, the story of how they came to cut the Jimmie Rodgers song they did was an interesting one.
In March 2016 Billy Bragg and Joe Henry  guitars in hand  boarded a Los Angeles-bound train at Chica...
In March 2016 Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, guitars in hand, boarded a Los Angeles-bound train at Chicago’s Union Station looking to reconnect with the culture of American railroad.
Billy Bragg
Checking into the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Bragg found himself staying in Room 414, where blues singer Robert Johnson had laid down some tracks in 1936. Discovering that Rodgers had also frequented the hotel, occupying a suite towards the end of his life, the boys decided to record "Waiting for a Train" in Room 414.
Bragg's solo spot was "Do Unto Others" off 2013's Tooth & Nail (an album produced by Joe Henry). Another non-Shine a Light moment came in the form of the Anaïs Mitchell protest song, "Why We Build the Wall."
"I'm the first Englishman to yodel on a record since Morrissey on 'The Boy with the Thorn in His Side,'" announced Billy upon finishing the aforementioned "Waiting for a Train," "and I'm not being ironic!"
A moment of humour in an already lighthearted atmosphere came when the two were trying to find the right key ahead of "Railroading on the Great Divide," which took longer than expected. "You'd think we'd never played together before!" laughed Billy.
The last song of the main set was "Midnight Special" and, just as I was starting to think I wouldn't get to hear my favourite song on the album, "Gentle on My Mind," then it came in all its stripped-down glory, the first song of the encore.
Closing the proceedings was a version of Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You," sung without microphones and rounding off a very entertaining hour and a half of music, given extra gravitas thanks to the excellent acoustics.
Continuing with the celestial theme, the next time Billy and Joe perform together in London will be on November 7 and 8 at Union Chapel in Islington. I would definitely recommend going to see them - if you can get a ticket!
For more information on this project, and to check on tour dates, go here.
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