Sabrina Ellis Sings National Anthem for Hurting Nation

Mass shootings on the mind at Blues on the Green performance

The Great Lawn of Zilker Park looked like a quilt Wednesday night, patched with every manner of blanket. Atop them sat families with happy, panting dogs; couples uncorked wine bottles and congregations of teens giggled at their phones.

As Blues on the Green organizer Andy Langer took the stage to introduce the evening’s first performer, a woman ran toward the stage, pulled up her shirt, and flashed her breasts at him.

“It’s the first time that’s ever happened,” Langer told me later.

Twenty-nine years running, Blues on the Green remains an essential community event and Austin showed up for the summer’s final installment of the free concert series, which drew a crowd solidly five digits deep. That turned into a joyous occasion, with attendees anticipating performances from deep R&B vocalist Soul Man Sam and alt-pop sensation Sweet Spirit. Even so, beneath it all lingered the pain of unprovoked public violence, with mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, OH., leaving 31 dead over the weekend.

Wednesday morning, I couldn’t help but imagine any local gathering in this city falling victim to civic terrorism. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one.

Soul Man Sam channels Sam Cooke (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Sam Evans, the 71-year-old Memphis-raised singer known to locals as Soul Man Sam, wasted no time in bringing America’s precarious social climate into context. He’s mostly blind, due to glaucoma, but can still identify a broken society.

“Everyone’s hating each other,” observed the elder, who came of age during America’s transformative and tumultuous civil rights era. “We need a change in the world – a change for love.”

With that, he slid into a spectacular take on Sam Cooke’s eternally optimistic anthem “A Change is Gonna Come.” The refrain – “It’s been a long time, a long time coming” – remains frustratingly relevant when applied to the topic of racial harmony.

In turbulent times, we find ourselves debating the function of artists. Is it their role to distract us from pressing social dilemmas or remind us of them? One thing for certain, rhetoric will only further divide us. A better way to work toward the healing and growth we need is through empathy and asking questions.

Sweet Spirit frontwoman Sabrina Ellis delivered precisely that on Wednesday.

Sabrina Ellis soars above Sweet Spirt during ACL Radio’s final Blues on the Green concert for the year at Zilker Park, 8.7.19 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

In a move known only to her bandmates but not her management or the show’s organizers, Ellis – highly regarded for channeling complicated emotions into exuberant performances – began the band’s headlining set by polling the audience about change.

“I’m hoping a change is possible,” she said in reference to Saturday’s racially-motivated mass shooting in El Paso. “It’s so hard to know what to say when someone you love loses somebody close to them and they’re in a pain and loss and grieving that you cannot imagine. What do you say to your friend?

“It’s even harder to know what to say to a world, a country, that’s in pain – that’s grieving, that’s losing, that’s hurting each other. It’s so hard to know what to say to you friends… I don’t even know if it’s my place. Sometimes I write songs for people that I love… and then they hurt me.

“But I keep playing those songs anyway. This is a song for a country I love, even though the leadership is fanning the flames of hatred and fear of one another. Everyone here is smarter than that, has more love than that, and is better than that.

“How do we tell our leadership that we believe, still, in change?”

Which one of their emotionally heavy pop tunes did they follow that speech with? None of them. The sextet opened with a 205-year-old lyric, applied to an even older melody, that everyone in attendance knew the words to:

“Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light ....”

Ellis began it solo, then the band crashed in on “the ramparts.” After her voice leapt to hit the final sustained word – “brave” – drummer Danny Lion clicked immediately into another unexpected cut, “The New World,” by L.A. punk heroes X, whose John Doe now lives in Austin.

Honest to goodness,
The tears have been falling
All over the country’s face.
It was better before,
Before they voted for what’s-his-name

For the next 55 minutes, Sweet Spirit gave the audience the distraction they deserved, culminating with penultimate singalong “The Power,” but only after they’d completed another duty as artists: Parting the black clouds enough to give us a little bit of hope in the world.

View the performance photo gallery here.

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Sweet Spirit, Blues on the Green, Andy Langer, Sabrina Ellis, Sam Evans, Soul Man Sam, Sam Cooke, John Doe, X, Ronald Reagan, Austin City Limits Radio

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