On a day when it seemed the world had gone mad and America (well, around a quarter of Americans) elected a racist, sexist, homophobic self-publicist to be their next President, what better way to soothe the soul than to spend a couple of hours in the company of one of the UK’s most outspoken socio-political commentators?
Billy Bragg is touring the country with Joe Henry, the American singer-songwriter he met in New York 30 years ago where they bonded over a shared love of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Leadbelly. Tonight they’re at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre – deep in Kentish pro-Brexit country – with their collection of US railroad songs collated and recorded during a 2,700-mile train ride from Chicago to Los Angeles.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Bragg live over the years – Red Wedge, Artists Against Apartheid, Glastonbury’s Left Field Stage – and tonight I took along my 22-year-old daughter. Also a huge Bragg fan, I’d found her crumpled on the sofa in tears at 5.30am that morning, unable to believe that Trump had beaten Clinton to the White House. She was hoping to hear Help Save the Youth of America amongst tracks from the pair’s ‘Shine a Light’ album, and she wasn’t disappointed (though even that brought a tear to her eye).
Bragg’s inevitable commentary on the day’s events was surprisingly optimistic. He returned to the stage alone after the interval to profess that the majority of Americans didn’t want Trump any more than most Brits wanted Brexit – and neither result should be viewed as an indictment of such.
Cue ‘Between the Wars’, followed by ‘Help Save the Youth of America’ and ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’, before a topical cover Anais Mitchell’s ‘Why We Build the Wall’ and the unifying anthem ‘There is Power in a Union’.
Bragg was on form tonight, admitting he and Henry were wired after a day spent soaking up election news and declaring himself “genre fluid”. Tonight’s audience certainly seemed to confirm the fact that he can’t be pigeon-holed – an eclectic mix of teenagers, forty-somethings and comfy shoe-clad folk fans.
So what of the material we’d really come to see? Bragg’s love of Woody Guthrie is well documented with his Wilco collaborations – beautiful arrangements of songs such as ‘California Stars’ and ‘Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key’.
But this collection is more stripped-down, the only connection between the songs being references to the great American railroad. The Carter Family’s ‘Railroading on the Great Divide’ and Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ share a stage with Hank Williams’ ‘Lonesome Whistle’ and Guthrie’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’.
The pair’s voices make a comfortable mix, although Bragg’s baritone efforts on a couple of numbers seem almost comedic, and their warm on-stage exchanges ensure the evening strolls along at a gentle pace.
The stories are as entertaining as the music – especially the one about the train line on the Mexican border where the towns on either side of the track appear decades apart.
John Hartford’s ‘Gentle on my Mind’, a 60s hit for Glen Campbell, is a touching encore and Bragg leaves us with the mantra “Don’t moan – organise”, emphasising the strength and power of community.
An uplifting end to a demoralising day.