In my two and a half years as an Exeter student, I like to pride myself on having been to most of the various venues and makeshift music spaces the city has to offer. From the sizeable Great Hall, to the currently under reconstruction Cavern, I’ve witnessed musicians from a number of genres perform, but never have been to (nor seen the inside of for that matter) Exeter’s Corn Exchange, an all-seated venue usually reserved for comedy. Nevertheless this was where protest folk hero Billy Bragg took to the stage, alongside Americana-country musician Joe Henry in support of their latest album Shine A Light: Field Recording from the Great American Railroad.
The record was the product of the duo’s journey across America (travelling through from Chicago to Los Angeles via San Antonio) and soaking in the traditional folk culture that comes hand in hand with the history of the railways and travelling hobos. They started the show with traditional railroad cover of ‘Railroad Bill’, swiftly followed by a cover of Jean Ritchie’s ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’, after which they described their recording of the track on a train platform in Texas. In fact the stories the pair retold of their journey across America were just as interesting as the folk covers they were performing. More traditional folk covers followed including ‘John Henry’, a song about the African American folk hero who is said to have worked on constructing a railroad tunnel, and ‘In the Pines’, a song made famous by Lead Belly and brought to more contemporary audiences following its performance in Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged performance.
Following their performance of two more tracks off of Shine a Light and Henry recalling the time the pair recorded in a hotel (and converted railway station) where infamous blues musician Robert Johnson had recorded material years before them, the duo segued into mini individual sets. Bragg departed the stage to leave Henry to perform some material from his own back catalogue, before being forced into an earlier than planned interval after a lighting glitch left the stage resembling more of a night out at Timepiece than a civilized traditional folk concert. Coming back shortly after Henry, a great artist in his own right and the perfect melodic accomplice to Bragg’s more gravelly vocal delivery, treated the crowd to some of his own heartfelt Americana (‘Trampoline’ being the standout track), whilst also lambasting the current state of America and the impending Trump presidency.
while It was clearly something of a personal labour of love, it made for great viewing
The political tone was notched up as Bragg took to the stage to perform his four songs. “I know what you’re thinking”, he said addressing the crowd after sharing a hug with Henry. In fact the pair’s choice of outfit couldn’t resemble their musical output anymore if it tried, Henry in a smart, clean blazer and trousers with Bragg wearing a flat cap and slightly scruffy shirt, wearing his working-class hero status proudly. “How can you be singing about railroads, when the world’s the way it is” he knowingly questioned before launching into a brand new song and fueling hopes of a new solo Bragg album. He followed this up with a well-established political anthem in the form of 1991’s ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’ (which he dedicated to Trump) and Anais Mitchell cover ‘Why we Build the Wall’, before ending on a stirring rendition of ‘Between the Wars’ a call-to-arms as powerful now as it was back in 1985.
There’s a certain simplicity to what was being performed on stage, with a low key set up of just guitars and microphones, perfectly suiting the all-seated venue as the two performers engaged with the audience, swapping stories and indulging in the age-old tradition of folk music. Bragg even joked about his audiences not being used to the intricate tunings associated with traditional folk music. While it was clearly something of a personal labour of love, it made for great viewing, with the duo flitting between up-keeping folk traditions, reciting tales of their expedition and making pointed political statements to an appreciative audience. Reuniting for the final stage of the evening, Henry and Bragg zipped through a flurry of covers of railroad and folk music’s all-time greats including Hank Williams’ ‘Lonesome Whistle’ and Lead Belly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘Midnight Special’.
The pair returned for a further three tracks that saw them tackle some of folk’s biggest names, performing the hugely under-heard ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying With You’ off Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (in itself a sort of railroad song) and Woody Guthrie’s ‘Ramblin Round’ to rapturous applause from a packed out Corn Exchange. This is music in its purest form, two people playing guitar and singing lyrically interesting folk music without accompaniment or extravagant light shows. Two performers who feel at home on stage and captivate the audience not just with their musicianship but with the tales they have to tell. I left the venue having felt I’d learnt something as well as appreciated some fine artistry, with my short walk back to Union Road spent googling the history of the railroad, listening to Lead Belly and fantasizing over the prospect of another politically charged Billy Bragg album.