Photo Credits: Under the Radar 

The least controversial statement I can think of is that there are significant problems in our world, particular and universal issues that face us and everyone we know. Political statements have always been a part of the music of Billy Bragg, a 59-year-old British guitarist whose musical repertoire ranges from The Internationale and post-pink songs to his recent acoustic protest songs. 

In his 1983 song “To Have and to Have Not,” Bragg sings, “But I have come to see in the Land of the Free/ There is only a future for the chosen few.” Then, 40 years later, Brexit happened. And then Trump. Bragg knew that he had to do something. Coming off of an album about the American Railroad, the old guard of leftist folk-punk could no longer sit idly by, so he did what he knew best: set out on the road with a guitar and a purpose. 

On Wednesday, September 27, the older musician came to Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern to celebrate its 70th birthday. With a start time of 8:30 PM, I made my way down to Queen and Spadina for the unofficial socialist pub night.

I had a class until 8:00 PM, so I figured I would get to the concert by 8:20 PM, grab a drink and do some light mingling. I got out of Osgoode station and ran over to the Horseshoe Tavern. I made it there on time, and much to my surprise, there was a line extending along Spadina of 40 and 50-year-old former (and current) punks. I quietly got in line and listened to the conversation around me. I was the youngest and the shortest person in line—gone were my hopes for a good view of Billy. As I got closer to security I almost saw the guard’s eyes light up because I was one of the few people needed to be carded. 

While I stood in this group of people that were my parents’ age, I noticed a few things about the demographic. The first thing was that they were not afraid to wear a The Clash, a The Jam or a The Specials shirt to a Billy Bragg show. The second thing was that whenever a familiar song came on, the audience members tapped each other on the arms knowingly and began to dance recklessly. Of course, the latter may be due to the fact that the only music that played leading up to Billy’s set was The Clash, The Jam and The Specials.

Jeff Cohen, the current owner of the Horseshoe Tavern, walked onto stage in an old The Specials polo and an endearing introduction for the man of the night. With his two guitars and a mic, Billy Bragg came out with proletarian swagger and addressed the crowd. Bragg announced that he would be playing songs from his first three albums (to much fanfare) as well as his new protest songs, a direct response to the reinvigorated racists and fascists around the world. 

In true Bragg style, his concert consisted of impassioned protest songs and off-the-cuff speeches about social justice. A combination of nostalgia and optimism regarding our future filled the air alongside beer and sweaty bodies. The concert was a strange spectacle to witness, but one I would most definitely do again. 

There was a feeling that we could do it somehow. That despite Theresa May, we could have a Labour government. That despite Justin Trudeau’s neoliberalism, we could have Jagmeet Singh. That despite Donald Trump, we could have the Democratic Socialists of America.

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