Live music review: Billy Bragg & Joe Henry

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

The world needs protest singers now more than ever and few are better qualified than veteran leftwing troubadour Billy Bragg. 

He reminded us of his credentials during a performance at St Patrick’s Cathedral as, accompanied by whoops and applause, the singer delivered a version of ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ that reimagined the Dylan standard as an anti-Trump rallying cry.

“Come Mexicans, Muslims, LBGT, and Jews,” sang Bragg. 

“Keep your eyes wide for what’s on the news/for President Trump is expressing his views, and I fear that the mob he’s inciting.”

The song offered welcome catharsis after a week of upheaval in the US. Yet it was arguably at odds with the tenor of the rest of the gig, which reflected Bragg’s current passion for pre-rock ’n roll Americana.

He was playing with Joe Henry who, in addition to being Madonna’s brother-in-law, is an esteemed blues and roots producer. 

The set was largely drawn from their recent collaborative LP, Shine A Light, a valentine to the American railroad recorded as the pair travelled by Amtrak across the southern US.

This was heady stuff, if a departure from the agitprop with which Bragg is usually associated, and an astute booking by Temple Bar TradFest in that it underscored the many incarnations folk music can take.

A sepia melancholy characterised the duo’s version of ‘In The Pines’ (the definitive Lead Belly reading of which was famously covered by Nirvana) while ‘The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ lamented the industrial death spiral which has sapped the life-force from small-town American and, it might be argued, helped sweep Trump into the White House.

A solo spot by Henry saw the North Carolina artist passionately plead for peace and understanding, his songs celebrating community and standing up for what was right. Bragg then took the spotlight to dip into his catalogue. 

Throughout he tempered his anger with a wry humour and glimmerings of optimism. 

In the dark days to come, we could do worse than follow his example.


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