Last summer, Michael Coleman had a realization about the power of music.
The night of August 12—after 24 hours of terror and chaos that included a torch-lit march led by white supremacists and the Unite the Right rally that left three people dead and dozens of community members and activists injured—Coleman took to Facebook Live to play a song to friends and followers.
He’d written “Good Day to Cry” in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, downtrodden by the polarization of the United States, by the hatred, the anger and the deepening divisions among people. Coleman began to wonder, “What happened to all of the good things that made us [as a country] who we are, in terms of being welcoming and being understanding of differences?”
The Southern Café and Music Hall
But on that rainy August night, Coleman says the song evolved in its meaning. It was no longer about the United States; “it was specifically about Charlottesville,” a song for “realizing that, as a city, we’re pretty broken. And it’s just calling it out in the hopes that we’ll start a discussion about it,” he says. What’s more, the responses that the song received made Coleman see the ways in which music can “shape opinion, facilitate discussion” or make people “forget about anything else,” if just for a few minutes, he says.
“If I could push a little more, maybe we’d come out as equal,” Coleman sang. “’Cause love is not dead, it’s just missing all of the people.”
“Good Day to Cry” became the closing track on a recently released five-song EP that Coleman—who played drums in local folk acts The Hill & Wood and Nettles before picking up guitar and lead vocals for his eponymous soul-rock act The Michael Coleman Band—recorded with the musical collective Free Union.
The group celebrates the record’s release with a show at The Southern Café & Music Hall on Friday.
Free Union is, in some ways, The Michael Coleman Band evolved. Coleman sings and plays rhythm guitar in the new collective, which he leads alongside drummer Rob Dunnenberger, who has supported various other artists in town, including Devon Sproule, Post Sixty Five, Dillingham, David Wax Museum and The Michael Coleman Band. Other members of the collective—keyboardist Butch Taylor, bassists Parker Hawkins and Jon Markel, vocalist Carrie Coleman and producer Devonne Harrison (of Richmond-based band Butcher Brown), have equal influence on Free Union’s rock-soul-R&B-pop sound, even while not being present at every performance.
Free Union stands for collaboration, for “positivity and community,” says Dunnenberger. It’s there in the sheer act of playing music that’s been collectively written, and it’s in both the musical and lyrical content of those songs too.
“While we present something lyrically, we also play music that sounds good, has a groove that you can move to. But we’re also trying to present ideas on top of that, that get you prepared for change, or wanting change,” says Dunnenberger.
You might get lost in the music, adds Coleman, but at some point, there’s going to be “a line that’s going to wake you the fuck up.” Perhaps it’s one of the lines from “Free World”: “Elaborate illusion / Is that what you meant when you said everyone’s included?” or “Watch what you do and where you step, they’re listening / Watch where you go and who you meet, they’re judging. / And if it’s all a dream, then why am I not awake?”
It’s “showing Charlottesville a mirror of itself,” says Dunnenberger of Free Union’s music, as it asks us all to take a long, hard look at our shared reflection and see the ugliness, the beauty.
Free Union also asks Charlottesville to take a look at what’s present—and what’s absent—musically. Free Union isn’t your run-of-the-mill energetic singer-songwriter stuff that people have come to expect from a place where the specter of the Dave Matthews Band hangs over just about every stage in town. Free Union combines soul and R&B with catchy pop sensibilities and a funk-ish groove, and while the music sounds familiar—it’s also fresh growth for Charlottesville’s musical landscape.
In “recognizing multiple perspectives lyrically and stylistically,” the collective can inspire change in a variety of ways, says Dunnenberger. Playing and “listening to these tunes makes me want to go out and do something bigger than myself, and I hope for other people, it brings that same emotion.” He says Free Union’s “Survivor” gets him particularly excited for that: “Maybe I will be the one to change the world / and if I can, you can too. / You and I will be the ones to risk it all, / because it’s who we are,” the song goes.
None of this is to say that Free Union has all the answers—Coleman acknowledges this outright. “We’re posing questions; we’re figuring this out at the same time as everyone else,” he says.
But what the collective’s emphasis on collaboration and communication does promote is “the idea that we can all work together to make something beautiful,” says Coleman, “whether it’s music, or art, or this town.”