by / January 30th, 2017 /

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry – St. Patricks Cathedral, Dublin

No better way to end a week mired in the political actions of the greatest misogynist known to modern times than to experience the message of equality, compassion and solidarity delivered by Billy Bragg and Joe Henry in Dublin on Saturday night. The duo remind us that – whatever may come –  there is a light, that never goes out.

Tonight that shines inside Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral as the pair’s Shine a Light tour visits the capital.

Last March, Bragg and Henry embarked on a rail journey from Chicago to Los Angeles – a distance of over 2,700 miles – with the aim of reconnecting with the culture and history of the American railroad, the music it inspired, and the people it moved around. Along this four day journey, as their train snaked through towns, cities and states, the duo recorded a series of classic railroad tracks. That adventure is manifest on record with last year’s album entitled Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. That’s right, an album in just four days.

In Dublin we hear it tonight. The duo – armed with acoustic guitars – play a series of classics from folk, rock, and blues legends, including Jimmy Rogers, John Henry, The Carter Family, Hank Williams, the great Leadbelly, and of course Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. As Bragg goes low, and Henry high, the sounds of Americana are belted out through the eight hundred year old cathedral’s interior. Between songs, the pair tell tales of their journey and give a running narrative of the history of folk and rock ‘n roll, educating us throughout the show. Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’ – familiar to fans of Dylan and Paul Weller – is superb.

Bragg is a man of endless endeavour, who buries himself in projects, constantly adapting to the old and new worlds in which he inhabits. We should remember Mermaid Avenue, the meisterwerk in which he and Wilco brought the previously unrecorded poetry of political songsmith Woody Guthrie to life through a series of spectacular songs spanning two albums (some of those tracks recorded in Dublin, no less). The Shine a Light project enables that same spirit of creation, reviving old cultures and demonstrating that the issues of the past are still the relevant themes of today.

Bragg and Henry conceptualised their railway adventure as a way to celebrate the lost parts of America in which the railroads go. In fact, many of the people living in these remote regions – having experienced massive industrial decline – have recently helped to vote in the current American administration, in a desperate effort to rebuild their prior relevance. Knowing this, Bragg and Henry’s words between songs are equal in importance to their songs’ lyrics themselves, and the pair are visibly upset – but not defeated – as they speak of the events taking place in their home nations of England and the USA during this past year, and amplified last week.

Tonight, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, there are more familiar tracks too. As the couple splits, they perform originals from their own bag. Bragg delivers ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’ with the now so relevant declaration “you’re a dedicated swallower of fascism”, before singing Anaïs Mitchell’s modern protest song ‘Why We Build the Wall’, which he rightfully proclaims to be growing more powerful by the day. This is a real moment. Then, together again for an encore, the duo sing Dylan’s ‘Tonight I’ll be staying here with you’, opening with the eternal line ‘throw my ticket out the window.’

A real defining point of the night, which highlights the pain now being administered to millions of people across the US and the world, is a rendition of Dylan’s classic ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”, with new words, attacking the current American president’s dangerous views. The melody is familiar to all, but with the new refrain “the times they are a-changing, back”, the song is reactivated for a new generation, and its significance all too real.

Billy Bragg sings Anaïs Mitchell – Why We Build The Wall

HADES
Why do we build the wall?
My children, my children
Why do we build the wall?

CERBERUS
Why do we build the wall?
We build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

HADES
How does the wall keep us free?
My children, my children
How does the wall keep us free?

CERBERUS
How does the wall keep us free?
The wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

HADES
Who do we call the enemy?
My children, my children
Who do we call the enemy?

CERBERUS
Who do we call the enemy?
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free


HADES
Because we have and they have not!
My children, my children
Because they want what we have got!

CERBERUS
Because we have and they have not!
Because they want what we have got!
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That?s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

HADES
What do we have that they should want?
My children, my children
What do we have that they should want?

CERBERUS
What do we have that they should want?
We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none
And our work is never done
My children, my children
And the war is never won
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free
We build the wall to keep us free

Follow Conor Purcell on Twitter and read some of his other articles here.

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry photographed by Kieran Frost.