Live review: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry at Playhouse Whitley Bay

Railways over here don't enjoy anything like the cachet that they do in the US.

Monday, 30th January 2017, 3:32 pm
Updated Monday, 30th January 2017, 3:36 pm
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry.

Over there, the expansion of the rail network west has spawned any number of classic songs and films admired by all and sundry.

Over here, our domestic train network inspired the mid-1990s sitcom Oh, Doctor Beeching!, starring Paul Shane and Su Pollard, and that’s about it.

That might make reworking US railroad songs seem like an odd career move for someone as archetypally English as singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, but, like one of his previous transatlantic collaborations, the two albums of Woody Guthrie songs he released with US alternative rock act Wilco in 1998 and 2000, it works.

Here again, the 59-year-old has joined forces with a native – North Carolina-born singer-songwriter Joe Henry – to celebrate America’s heritage for an album released in September and a tour which brought them to Playhouse Whitley Bay last week for a sellout show.

That album, Shine a Light, a No 28 hit recorded during a 2,700-mile train trip the pair made across America the year before last, accounted for the bulk of their two-hour-plus set.

Both also played five songs apiece on their own, Bragg’s set including his 1985 hit Between the Wars and Henry’s a cover version of Allen Toussaint’s Freedom for the Stallion, but it was the songs they did together from the new LP that accounted for the highlights of the night.

The Jimmie Rodgers song Waiting for a Train, Lonesome Whistle by Hank Williams and Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain were among the pick of the tunes from Shine a Light featured, but the rest weren’t far behind.

As on the Mermaid Avenue albums with Wilco, Bragg managed to keep his Essex accent in check to deliver fairly faithful renderings of tunes made famous by the likes of Lead Belly and Lonnie Donegan.

That change of tack prompted him to reminisce about being told by a fan at a previous show that he didn’t know Bragg was capable of singing like that.

“Like what? Country? Low? In tune?” he mused.

As it happens, he managed all three, as did Henry, 56, and one can only hope that, like the Mermaid Avenue project, this one has a bit more distance to run than a single album’s worth of songs.