“The trouble with Woody Guthrie songs,” Billy Bragg said onstage at the Wilbur Theatre Sunday night, “is they have a propensity to become relevant again.”
It was by way of introducing “Hobo’s Lullaby” — not a Guthrie original, but a key piece in his repertoire. That migrant’s lament, Bragg said, was fitting in light of Hungary’s referendum earlier that day, in which 95 percent of voters rejected a European Union refugee resettlement plan.
Bragg was onstage with Joe Henry, the American songwriter and producer, with whom he recorded a set of railroad-inspired songs called “Shine a Light” during a four-day train excursion earlier this year.
Not everything felt quite so topical. But in a satisfying performance that combined songs from the railroad album with solo blocks by each musician, Bragg and Henry presented a mix of personal artistry and respect for the history informing the ever-breathing folk process. It was enough to make you want to hop on a train.
Though attractively earnest, the railroad material didn’t really play to the strengths of either artist. The arrangements, propelled by acoustic strumming and shared vocals, were respectful but added little personality. Yet these are great songs, and if “In the Pines” lacked the dark whiff of murder found in Lead Belly’s definitive interpretation, it effectively channeled the song’s essential loneliness. A rousing “Rock Island Line” featured call-and-response vocals and much verve.
Henry impressed in his solo sequence, with a gripping take on “Trampoline” that cut deeper than the full-band version available on record. The new song “Shook Up the World (For Muhammad Ali)” reinforced Henry’s ability to transfix with just his presence, his voice, and an acoustic guitar.
The US presidential election was of course on the mind of the ever-political Bragg, and he made reference to Donald Trump’s plans for the Mexican border with a committed solo take on local favorite Anaïs Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall.”
Linking the United Kingdom’s so-called Brexit vote with the candidacy of the GOP nominee, Bragg introduced his own “Accident Waiting to Happen” with an implied dedication to Trump. “Goodbye and good luck to all the promises you’ve broken,” Bragg sang, “Goodbye and good luck to all the rubbish that you’ve spoken.”
It was a reminder that his own songs, like Guthrie’s, tend to stay relevant as well.
BILLY BRAGG AND JOE HENRY
At the Wilbur Theatre, Oct. 2