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There’s Power in a Union

Billy Bragg walked onstage Friday night in Royce Hall with a couple of guitars and a cup of tea and held us all right in his grasp.

Bragg’s penchant for rabble-rousing rhetoric is well known among his fans, as much as his thoroughly thought-provoking lyrics, hooky riffs, raw, aching and yet-subtly controlled vocals and his clear and absolute sense of his musical self and personal mission. Those of us who’ve known and loved him well for years were not disappointed. He peppered his songs with effortless soapbox interstitials on the political state of his and our country, the dangerous and polarizing effect of our sensational media outlets and their pundits–or “peddlers of hate” as he dubbed them in a new song titled “There Will Be A Reckoning”–alongside tongue-in-cheek criticism of American football and American tea.

Bragg has a political agenda, to be sure. It may not match your own, but even so, you have to respect the way he stays true to his own ideology–talking, writing and singing about it with great logic and more than a little wit, wisdom and warmth, all of which is truly inspiring to witness in person. Really, you would have to be a complete cynic to not have felt just a little inspired by ‘the bard of Barking’ Friday night.

And the man himself used much of his set to warn us all against the dangers of cynicism and exhort us not to give up hope in a time of political turmoil.

It’s human to doubt, and good to have healthy skepticism, but “our greatest enemy is cynicism,” he admonished us. “I battle my own cynicism every day, but I get to come out here in the dark and talk to you and you all cheer for me and it helps.”

Bragg admitted he’s always been a “glass-half-full guy,” and it’s easy to scoff at people like that.

But, he said…if you want to make things better in this world, “half-full is a damn good place to start.”

There’s Power in a Union, he reminded us at the end of his set. This battle-cry song has always struck a nostalgic and emotional chord with me, having grown up a Teamster’s daughter. And, it struck a chord with more than just me Friday night, judging by the immediate and immense standing ovation it was met with.

But I’ve always also felt the dual message in that song and I felt it again Friday night. There’s power in a union, but not just in the organized-labor-protective-group definition of the word. There’s also power in a union of people, in a meeting of the minds, in a union of purpose.

The night yielded one such union, when Billy joined the indefatigable Mavis Staples on stage to perform the gospel staple The Weight. Their union on that stage held a simple purpose, to generate a massive amount of joy and share it with everyone in the room.

Mavis and her band kept that pure joy flowing for the rest of the evening and by the end of her set, every seat in the hall was empty because we were all standing, hands thrust in the air, joining in the repeated phrase “I’ll take you there,” witnessing the great power of great music to join us all in a singular purpose.

Even if that purpose was simply enjoying a musical legend performing and manifesting pure hope and joy, well, that’s a damn good place to start.

Mavis and Billy definitely took us somewhere Friday night. It’s nowhere I’ve ever been before, and perhaps I’ll never get there again. But it was a heck of a visit, that’s for sure.

Were you with me? Share your favorite moment from the night.