Billy Bragg and Joe Henry – Melbourne Recital Hall, Melbourne (23/04/17)

“I’m going to explain the format, I’d hate to get to the end and find you’d been confused this whole time,” joked Joe Henry. This was because tonight’s performance was not a typical Billy Bragg or Joe Henry show, rather this was an expanded version of their collaborative album Shine a Light; a collection of live field recordings made around, and about, the American railroad system.

Consisting of just their acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies, the pair elicited quite a full and beautiful sound, with Henry’s powerful and expressive voice sitting atop Bragg’s baritone.

Although Bragg could truthfully have always been referred to as a folk singer, it was interesting to note the expanse he has travelled from the brazen, cockney accented punk of his earlier material, to the delicate delivery of tonight’s reading. His voice was rich and tuneful throughout, easily holding his own against his counterpart.

The songs from the album were interspersed with long stories related to their creation, with a little bit of politics woven in. In The Pines by Leadbelly was an early standout, showcasing not only their well matched vocals but some wonderful guitar playing from Henry. Throughout the show he alternated between two presumably quite old parlour-style acoustics, which were amplified only by microphone, and yet were surprisingly clear and resonant in the confines of the Recital Hall.

After 40 minutes the first section of the show came to an end and Henry played some songs from his own catalogue, including the righteous Our Song from 2007’s Civilians, and a rendition of Allen Toussaint’s Freedom For The Stallion.

After an intermission it was Bragg’s turn to take the solo spotlight, and rather than pandering to the expectations of the audience, continued the theme of folk covers with a revision of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’, before dipping into his own back catalogue for the only time during the evening with Accident Waiting to Happen, which was dedicated to Theresa May, and Power in the Union. The latter was so much louder and energetic than any of the other tunes played at that point you could sense the decidedly older crowd begin to shift forward in their seats.

The reunited pair then took the show home with further selections from the catalogues of Dylan, Leadbelly, Hank Williams and of course, Woody Guthrie, whose Ramblin’ Round closed proceedings. As with the rest of the material, that song, whose protagonist describes himself as a refugee seeking food and employment, was chosen to comment on contemporary society by looking back at what divides us, as well as what unites us.

Originally published in Beat Magazine.

Image by Ian Laidlaw.

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