‘Look at those elitist, bourgeois scumbags, sitting up there in their executive suite seats, looking down on the rest of us. How us true lefties despise them,’ thought everybody else on Wednesday night at Whitley Bay Playhouse. Probably. Maybe. Frankly, I don’t care. I’m enjoying wine from a plastic cup and have spotted a man who is the double of Leon Trotsky, so much so, that I think it might be Trotsky, and am formulating conspiracy theories in my head that revolve around him not getting murdered in Mexico and having extraordinarily good longevity genes.
To the music! Billy Bragg is co-touring with US singer-songwriter Joe Henry, the tour the product of a four-day railway journey that began in Union Station, Chicago, Illinois, and wound up in Los Angeles, California. Bragg and Henry have attempted to “reconnect with the culture of the American railroad journey and the music it inspired”, and the resulting atmosphere of the evening could be a scaled-down night at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville – burnt umber lighting, two guys with guitars, and a lot of railroad songs. Escapism and sensory immersion are the order of the evening, and I’m willing to buy into both of them.
Once you get past the initial thought that two blokes with guitars harmonising on stage looks a little bit like that episode of Family Guy where Peter and Quagmire launch singing careers with such gems as ‘Have You Ever Put Butter On A Pop-Tart?’, it’s easy to let the conceit of the evening envelope you and get comfortable in Bragg and Henry’s world. Their opening track, ‘Railroad Bill’, is a sort of alt-left ‘Cotton-Eye Joe’ about a shiftless womaniser who “never worked and…never will”, and presumably used that considerable downtime to refine his wife-snatchin’ skills.
That Bragg and Henry’s train no longer stops in Nashville, Tennessee, where the album was actually launched, is only the first ironic observation of the night. ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’, about the dying coal industry, is almost painfully relevant to a North-East crowd, given our long association with coal. The death of that industry wreaked a physical transformation on the “daddy” of the song; it wrought identity changes on communities who’d relied for generations on being to “fall back” on a job down the pit. As more and more people feel the effects of not having a living wage, or face relying on food banks to feed their families, or, in the USA, face the prospect of losing the healthcare insurance Obamacare promised them, the themes of disenfranchisement and frustration seem set to become more prevalent in artistry over the next four years.
As an American, Henry seems both stunned by and apologetic for the current political situation in the US, stating that he feels “[he] owes [us] some kind of accounting”, and Bragg has lost none of his poetic edge, brutally reworking ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ to include references to “Mexicans, Muslims, LGBT and Jews” and women “get[ing] back in the kitchen” within half an hour of seeing Trump’s inaugural speech on television. Bragg has had more time to process the fallout from “Brexit”, and has an outsider’s perspective on the results of the US presidential election, whereas Henry is still clearly reeling from it all. ‘Trampoline’, from Henry’s 1996 album of the same name, could be him throwing his hands up in despair and attempting to escape into his own little world. It’s nice to be there with him tonight.
It’s a night of claimed and imagined firsts – Bragg asserts that he is the first Englishman to yodel on record since Morrisey, and it’s also, according to Bragg, the first time Joe Henry has busked the promenade in Whitley Bay. This is a lovely mental image, even if it’s (probably) not true. Although the events discussed by our genial hosts tonight are new, the emotions they stir are not, and the lines between old and new are blurred in many of the older songs covered. Asking, “Lord, what are you going to do to the people who are praying to you?” could be a defiant challenge or a mournful question asked in desperation at almost any point in the last hundred years.
The set proper ends on a Lead Belly number, ‘Midnight Special’, a folkloric tale of hope clung to by the inmates of Cummings Prison in Oklahoma – if the train’s headlamp shone on them as it passed by at midnight, they would be the next prisoner paroled. This may seem strange, but I found a wistful romance in that idea – it has an almost fairytale-like innocence to it, and don’t we all need a little bit of escapism right now?
The inevitable encore ends on a poignant, yet uncertain note. Bragg reflects that when he and Henry started their journey, they “didn’t see any of this coming. Not Brexit, not Trump, not Leicester City.” Their final song, Woody Guthrie’s ‘As I Go Ramblin’ Round’, captures the atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty we’ve all somehow found ourselves stumbling through at the beginning of 2017. “Never see[ing] a friend I know” was a new and sometimes brutal experience for many people when they found out which way family and friends had voted last year. None of us, from the lawmakers and politicians to us ordinary people trying to make a living, have a clue what’s going to happen in the next twelve, or even six months. Our belief systems are eroding or imploding. We’re questioning everything. Some of us will have to rebuild ourselves and our lives from the ground up. In Joe Henry’s eloquent words, “This is where we are, but it is not who we are.”
Photographer – Adam Kennedy
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