Amtrak’s Texas Eagle train runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, covering 2,728 miles and taking  just under 67 hours to complete its journey.  Tonight Billy Bragg and Joe Henry are showcasing a set of songs that they recorded when they took that trip together in March this year.

Songs were recorded in sleeping compartments, on railway platforms, in waiting rooms and hotel bedrooms.  Recordings were interrupted by grackles, crisp packets and oblivious bystanders some of which make a guest appearance  on Shine A Light, the resulting album which will be released on 23 September.

This is, Bragg tells us, the first time that the pair have performed these songs since recording them.   Consequently, there are a couple of false starts during the evening that are brushed off with self-effacing good humour and which only add to the charm of the performance. Bragg and Henry open with Railroad Bill, recorded by Lonnie Donnigan in 1956, picked up by Donnigan from Leadbelly’s recording.  Leadbelly and Donnigan recorded several of the songs that Bragg and Henry play tonight.  For Rock Island Line, Bragg explains that Leadbelly had heard the song from a group of prisoners while travelling with Alan Lomax to collect songs for the Smithsonian Institute and Bragg and Henry perform the song in the call and response style of a prison workgang.

With each song Bragg and Henry tell us a little more  about their epic trip, explaining why they chose each song and the circumstances of its recording.  The history of the railroad is inextricably linked with the history of the USA – Bragg likens the railway network to the Internet as the most important communication system that the world had seen, allowing both freight and people to connect across the length and breadth of the country, creating history with every foot of new-laid track. These songs celebrate that achievement, the work of those that made it possible and the mythology that it inspired.

Bragg and Henry have been friends for over 20 years and tonight during Hank William’s Lonesome Whistle  they harmonise like brothers; brothers called Louvin or possibly even Everly.  Following Jimmie Rodgers’ Waiting For A Train, Bragg suggests that this might be the first time an Englishman has yodelled since Morrissey recorded The Boy With The Thorn In His Side.

Between 23rd and 27th of November 1936, in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Robert Johnson recorded 16 of the most important songs in blues music history.  On an overnight stop in San Antonio, Bragg found himself staying in room 414 and knew that a song would have to be recorded there too.  These tales of Bragg and Henry’s journey, together with the songs that were inspired by it provide a fascinating evening’s entertainment.  The pair were keen that Shine A Light would indeed shine a light both back into the history of the railroad and forwards to more recent times and so rail songs like Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain and an encore of John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind are included, joining together the songwriters of the past with those of the present.

Over the course of 13 songs tonight  we’ve had a bit of a history and musicology lesson, a terrific performance from Bragg and Henry and a unique insight into the recording of what promises to be an exceptional album.  Bragg and Henry will be touring the UK in November. Don’t miss it.

John Scott

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