Photos by Matt Forsythe
What happens when two esteemed singer-songwriters bond over music and their love of trains? Well, if the artists in question are Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, they end up riding the rails from Chicago to Los Angeles and recording an album along the way. The album, Shine a Light, is subtitled “Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad.” They are now extending that journey with the Shine a Light tour that came to Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall on Tuesday night.
The American railroad – countless miles of wood and steel, built on the backs of broken men and broken hearts. The tracks connected East to West and sparked dreams in Americans of all stripes for over a century. The possibilities conjured are woven into every aspect of railroad songs and though train travel seems to be a dying trend, the idea of it is timeless and powerful.
Bragg and Henry walked on stage together, with no fanfare, just two musicians armed with their voices and their guitars. They started the night off with a tune called Railroad Bill and then played extensively from the new record. The songs seemed old and familiar, even if you’d never heard them before. Bragg and Henry arranged many songs in a way that payed homage to the original versions, versions that predate the radio era, when tunes were passed on through travellers who used the railroad to seek their American dreams. Bragg and Henry took turns leading the vocals, bringing life to the stories they told. Henry insisted that this was not a “nostalgia” show; music is a living language that grows and changes, but doesn’t devalue what came before. (As he pointed out, there’s a reason theatre companies still mount productions of King Lear.) The duo drew from a varied catalogue that honoured Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie – even Canada’s own Gordon Lightfoot. And though the songs come from a distant time, Bragg pointed out that the themes ring true today. In a world where refugees risk their lives every day dreaming of a better life, railway songs touch listeners deeply with their stories of hardship and heartache.
Both Bragg and Henry have wry story-telling styles that entertain, educate and provoke thought. They talked about their stay at the historic Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where Robert Johnson famously made one of his only two recordings. In an odd twist of fate, Billy ended up in room 414 – the very space where Johnson had been. Needless to say, the duo recorded a song within those storied walls. Both spoke of how the history of Rock n’ Roll is entwined with that of the railroad. Before playing their own version, Henry encouraged the crowd to go home and listen to Kurt Cobain’s version of In the Pines and compare it to older versions. Bragg quoted George Harrison and explained that the British Invasion traces back to Lead Belly who influenced Lonnie Donegan, who, in turn, influenced the Beatles.
Though still filled with the expected conviction and social commentary, this was clearly neither a Billy Bragg nor a Joe Henry concert. Each artist played a handful of tunes solo, but as a duo, they humbly shone a light on the railroad songs they love and the audience, clearly long-time fans, did not seem fazed by the train-centric set list. In a musical parallel to the theme of the night, they seemed to understand what it means to travel a long road in good company. In the end, the destination doesn’t matter – it’s all about the journey.