Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, RNCM, 19 November 2016
I want you to think about Superman 2 a moment. Specifically the scene where, having fallen in love with Lois Lane, revealed his true identity and voluntarily stripped himself of his powers, Clark Kent finds himself in a diner on the receiving end of a whupping. Bloody of lip, hair mussed, the waitress turns on the TV and we watch, stricken, as the President of the USA abdicates all power to General Zod (played by the always wonderful Terence Stamp) before making a last desperate cry for Superman to come to their aid. Zod grabs the microphone and asks, “Who is this Sue-Perman?” Clark turns to Lois and says, “I have to go back.” Lois replies, “You can’t.” Clark says, “I have to.”
What does this have to do with Billy Bragg, you might well ask, busy touring a new album in which he and Joe Henry perform songs – folk classics, old blues standards – about trains, which they recorded as they travelled the length and breadth of the US, stopping off on station platforms and in station waiting rooms? Over the course of the evening – which consists of Billy and Joe playing a bunch of songs from the new album, Joe treating us to a few of his own compositions, a short break, a handful of Billy’s classics and then more songs about trains performed by the pair of them – Billy and Joe talk a lot about trains. In the above scenario, let’s imagine for a moment that trains represent Lois Lane.
You see, it’s clear that the train project is long gestated. Billy tells us he is writing a book about 1956, a pivotal year, in which Leadbelly’s influence was taken up by Lonnie Donegan who went on to influence The Beatles who, you know, influenced everyone else. Billy mentions a George Harrison quote: “No Leadbelly, no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.” This is how important Leadbelly is, and they serve us two helpings of Leadbelly over the course of the night – one of which, “In the Pines”, remains extremely familiar thanks to Kurt Cobain’s cover as part of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged record (which was, curiously enough, performed on this same day some 23 years previous). Joe Henry tells us the Cobain cover makes their point for them – these songs remain relevant, contemporary, still have things to say to us. He goes further, just as theatre companies perform Shakespeare’s plays hundreds of years after they were first conceived because they continue to resonate, so with these songs. They make this point repeatedly, in a hundred different ways, but you can’t help but feel the lady doth protest too much. Billy and Joe love their train songs just as Superman loved his Lois Lane.
They started the tour in the US a few weeks before election day. It was hard, Billy remarks, to lecture the Americans on the dangers of Trump, the dangers of racism, the lessons of history, when across the pond in the UK the Tory Government is busy talking about having businesses produce lists of foreign workers, hard to make any robust arguments against a wall between the US and Mexico when the UK and the EU are policing a line that aims to keep a host of desperate people from escaping one of the worst places on the Earth right now. History will judge us, Billy says, and he receives the kind of resounding applause that you always tend to get at a Billy Bragg gig. Billy Bragg’s audience are nothing if not forceful clappers. So politics and the state of the world right now do intrude but it takes a back seat to trains and train stories and the continuing relevance of songs about trains. Billy and Joe travelled on a train to Nashville that was the only passenger train that day. Later they travelled on a passenger train that was the only passenger train on the route every other day – and that passed through Dallas, amongst other places. Trains are important, Billy tells us. What they represent is important. What we are losing is important. The album, Shine a Light – Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad, works in the same way. This is Billy Bragg the archivist. At any other time in the history of the world, people would look on this as they did on Mermaid Avenue, which resulted in three albums in which vocal duties were shared by him and Wilco. But the state of the world is precipitous. One is reminded of the President in that scene from Superman 2 – where are you, Billy? We need you!
And it’s like he knows it too. It’s like he knows he has set out on a tour and history is overtaking him day by day and hour by hour. He has agreed to do this. He and Joe are touring their new album. Billy, we sense, is nothing if not a good man. He will give it his all. And he does. And yet, during the twenty minute segment when he is free to perform his own songs, he grows in stature, filling the Royal Northern College of Music as if he is twenty feet high, thirty feet high, fifty feet high. He started with “Between the Wars”, followed it with “Help Save the Youth of America” – and really, is there a single more timely and topical song even in existence right now? – and made time for “Accident Waiting to Happen” from Don’t Try this at Home, and “There is Power in a Union”. Some of these songs are twenty, twenty-five years old and yet they tower and thrum. And Billy knows it. He performs a cover – and it is a good cover, of a song called “Why We Build the Wall” by Anais Mitchell, but on a night where the vast majority of songs are cover versions and we are gifted only a handful of Bragg compositions, we can’t help but be churlish because we came to see Billy, and that is despite, as I say, the fact that the song is good and the cover is good.
Most importantly, though, when Joe returns to the stage and the two of them begin to play old standards anew, Billy seems to shrink back to normal size and perhaps even an inch or two below his regular height. Because he is sharing a stage with a fellow performer and it is not about him, and he is performing songs that are not his own and they are not about him either, and he is a serious artist and he seeks to give the songs the respect they deserve. It’s like he knows that this is not what he should be doing right now. He should be writing songs. Modern anthems. Songs for our time. Engaging with the unmitigated shittiness of everything that is happening. We need Billy Bragg back. We need his anger. At various points during the night, he appears browbeaten, angry and somewhat cowed, as if the problems of the world are too great even for him. But, just as that beaten down Superman turned to Lois and said, “I have to go back” (“You can’t…” / “I have to!”), so Billy needs to find his best self. It’s great he is a serious artist. It’s great that he has a lovely sideline in resurrecting classics that still need to be heard. It’s lovely to hear he’s writing a book about 1956. But right now, it’s 2016, the world is on the verge of the most frightening presidency in history and… We need you Bill. Where are you?