Michael Franti and Spearhead Live
Michael Franti and Spearhead: Musical Miracles Abound - Concert Review from Milwaukee, WI at the Pabst Theatre on September 4, 2013.
Michael Franti is arguably God's greatest gift to the concert stage since Bruce Springsteen and U2. If you differ with this observation, it is most likely because you are an atheist. I do not say it as hyperbolic because when Franti and his superb band, Spearhead, step foot on the stage you will bear witness to one of the greatest musical miracles of your life. We are living in a day and age where music fans starve for connections that are authentic and earnest. We do not want barriers between the artist and us- it is not about how close you are to the stage, but how far and wide the artist's message can reach. Michael Franti is one of our greatest artists' because of his ability to make a weighty bond in clubs, theatres, arenas and even festivals. From the front row to the last seat in the balcony, Michael Franti and Spearhead bleed genuineness.
The Milwaukee show was the unofficial start of the All People tour. Despite playing at many outdoor festivals over the last few months along with a stint opening for Train, the Milwaukee date was the first proper headline theatre date of the tour. Opening with the shuffling beat of "I Don't Wanna Go", the crowd took to their feet as Franti led them in what would become one of the most charismatic performances I will ever lay witness to. "Yes I Will", deepened the bond with its folksy reggae rhythms. Having not performed it in several years the Everyone Deserves Music cut was one of the many snapshots of life Franti painted for the Milwaukee audience. "Stay Human (All the Freaky People)" made a return to the set as well with a clip of "It's A Family Affair" of Sly and the Family Stone (sung by bassist Carl Young) bringing the songs sensuality to the forefront. The buzz saw guitar on "Yell Fire" began arms swinging and found the crowd locked in step with all of Spearhead. During the serene reggae tin-can drums of "All I Want Is You", Franti made his first of many entries into the crowd. He walks looking each audience member eye-to-eye without ever flinching or losing his way in the song. As he sat on the edge of the stage with his acoustic guitar, he affectionately sang "The Sound of Sunshine" before the band flexed their musical muscle amidst a flurry of large yellow balloons. The opening thirty-minutes rushed by in a blink of an eye and consisted of six songs; one from each of his last six records representing the diversity and potency of one of the best music catalogs of the 21st Century.
In concert, Franti made each song blooms to unimaginable proportions. A performer's greatest skill is making an audience sing-along to a song they otherwise do not know. Despite the pop leanings of his last few records, Franti sells it better than anyone does with his live performance. Some songs are best suited for the beach ("Earth from Outerspace"), some for church ("11:59"), with others for a starry night ("Long Ride Home") and others for one-on-one intimacy ("Wherever You Are"). Each song leapt off the stage and infected every member of the audience as the music and lyrical themes swam throughout their blood. Franti's divergent tastes in music concoct full-bodied records reflecting these numerous influences from hip-hop to reggae to punk to alternative to candy coated pop, all of which find home on All People the next step in his evolution and a contender for one of my ten best records of 2013. The ardent acoustic "Life Is Better with You" was both sacred and sad in the intimacy of the theater. The tender guitar plucking is redolent for its confessional nature. Franti is letting his audience into his world here but more stirring was the story he told before the song. The week before Franti posted a picture to his social media accounts of a couple he was singing to in a hospital. The fan had ALS and had previously attended a Franti concert earlier this year. Franti started a new charity because of the highly emotional experience called DoItForTheLove.Org. He is attempting to raise money for terminally ill people to be able to travel to a concert by their favorite artist. In a world that relies far too heavily of pills to feel healthier, Franti is using the remedial power of art to enlighten the lives of those in ache. You did not have to go to the pharmacy to pick up your prescription as he delivered a heavy dose of positive vibes to every member of the crowd throughout the 2-plus hours the band was on stage.
Franti obliterated the audience's expectations; there is simply no other way to say it. Even when he has articulated his world-weariness in the human condition, he finds the unseen benefit in every situation and presents it in a perfect song. "Time to Go Home" is a masterwork of a world torn apart by war with a sneaking bass line while "Show Me a Sign" hails from the same DNA as "Hey Hey Hey" with its direct and poignant message. The dancehall pulse of "Gangsta Girl" found fifteen fans onstage. Shockingly the playfully exuberant "Gansta" is only on the deluxe edition of All People, as was the opener "I Don't Wanna Go". The deluxe version of the record is essential and worth the extra money. "Hey World (Don't Give Up)" was done on stools with Franti on acoustic and conga drums by Manas Itiene, who throughout the entire show provided unyielding tempo following Franti's cues. His partner in crime, bassist Carl Young, flexed more than a reggae pulse but provided an impenetrable bottom end that is the root of Spearhead. Multi-instrumentalist Raliegh Neal supplied hues that may not be instantly apparent but are integral to the concert stage as he helps replicate and flesh out the sounds from the records notably "All People" which Franti introduced as "a celebration of diversity" before the synth melody intoxicated the audience. Instead of letting circumstances overwhelm, the band channeled this energy into its songs, which are universally jittery, unsettled, and skittish while blended with candor and solemnity.
In a world of discontentment, Franti steered his audience to a place of healing as he did on the heartrending bittersweet farewell of "Say Goodbye". Inspired by Trayvon Martin, Franti's fragile vocal permeated every soul who heard it. As the song ended, he provided a snippet of U2's"One" pulling the emotions full circle. He stood on a chair in the thick of the crowd not performing but sharing an experience with Milwaukee, something you will not find at many concerts. The anthem "Hey Hey Hey" went off like a Sunday morning gospel revival. One listen to this song and your body is fueled with the sensation of winning the Super Bowl while "Let It Go" serves as a meaningful lesson in moving forward. "Long Ride Home", one of the best cuts Franti and Spearhead have ever committed to tape, is therapeutic in concert with its spacey guitar that wail in the wind courtesy of the great J Bowman, whose stage presence and playfulness nearly equaled Franti's. Towards the end, Franti threw in a snippet of Tom Cochrane's "Life Is A Highway" for good measure. Good music distracts you but great music renovates your perspective, your heart and every breath that escapes from your lips. Franti and Spearhead made their audience fully aware of the delicacy of life and not be afraid to stop and relish it. During the encore performance of his latest single, "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)", the band filled the audience up with a lifetime of love, optimism and hope that will stay with them as the song continued the sprawling never-ending dance party.
Going to arena shows there's usually this enormous gap between the stage and the front row usually reserved for video cameras and as a precautionary security measure. This ultimately means those in the front row are in the 10th or 15th row in a club. There is a whole-hearted authenticity in everything Franti does from his musical presentation, to his commitment with the crowd on and off the stage. He does not have the audience jump for his own ego, but because he believes, it serves the greater good of the show. Of all the art forms music is in many ways, the most intimate and healing is music because it's transportable. You can overhear a note in a restaurant, in an elevator, on the radio and in concert and it can dig up a forgotten memory or serve as a reminder of the best your life has to offer. Franti went into the crowd to perform entire songs close to a dozen times breaking all barriers and giving the audience an experience like no other. As acts retreat behind bodyguards, Franti dives into the crowd arms wide open. I am not sure if I have ever seen a more secure and gifted performer in my life. Michael Franti and Spearhead do not merely divert your thoughts, they illustrate your utmost joys and find a way to help make sense of torment and anguish we all encounter. These are not just hip songs with dancehall beats but rather songs of survival that make the pain in the pit of your stomach dissipate. Once you witness the miracle of the modern Marley, you will leave the venue ready to tackle and clinch the world like never before but to make yourself and those around you better. Franti and Spearhead are one of the most significant live acts in the world today because they treat every song like an epic proclamation of love.
The evening's preeminent moment was the performance of the All People cut "Closer To You", a yearning story of loneliness. The bravery and edict of the lyric paired with the effervescent arrangement would have been enough to shake the wall of the theatre, but Franti was in the crowd on a chair as the crowd gathered around him singing and swaying to every word. As I watched "Closer to You", the song pressed down on me with its burning bass melody redolent of a heartbeat of unreciprocated love. Its dance floor rhythm paired with Franti's vocals veered between gravity and a longing that never goes away. Franti transformed this song of isolation into a rousing communal prayer. Franti does not merely take the listener on a detour, but places the keys in their hands and gently closes them with a wink and a smile. His songs are the GPS to the other side where we may not have all the answers, but where we see progress in our passage. Too often people do not see the light until their final moments, what Franti is trying to do is take his listeners and himself one-step closer to the light while is still matters. The world is filled with many performers seeking your time, attention and money, but none of them will heal the heart like Michael Franti and Spearhead; you will walk into the show a fan but leave feeling like Franti is a close friend.
Michael Franti and Spearhead are touring the US through November and All People is in stores and at digital retailers now. Preview the tracks here.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter.
Michael Franti and Spearhead Live
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