Michael Franti and Spearhead's Soulshine Tour
Watching Michael Franti on the Soulshine tour, I am continually struck by his philosophical qualities. Anytime I've watched him on a concert stage (or in the throes of the crowd), there is an endearing eminence that pervades the audience's senses. He has always managed to break down barriers between the band and the audience by demanding participation and continually finding his way through the audience winning over the crowd night-after-night, city-after-city. In terms of live performers, Franti has no peer. Bruce Springsteen may win the award for endurance, U2 may have their spiritually soar like no one else and Garth Brooks may be the most affordable performer on the planet, but Franti can't be compared to any of them. When you watch Michael Franti and his legendary band Spearhead in concert, you are witnessing one of the most earnest performers on the planet. His boldness is unparalleled from gathering friends to open the show (SOJA, Brett Dennen, Trevor Hall), finding an unsung talent to showcase (Sonna Rele), having an afternoon yoga session with a few hundred fans or staying after the show to hug, high-five and take pictures with his fan base. I simply am unaware of any musician working at Franti's level who gives this much back to his friends or his audience and yet, he doesn't receive the press he deserves for being this creative and this good natured of a performer.
Over the last few years Franti has managed performing shows across the globe in a variety of functions as headliner, opener, festival circuit and now his own mini yoga festival entitled Soulshine, the name taken from a song on his 2001 album Stay Human. The show starts with an afternoon yoga session for approximately five-hundred fans. The number fluctuates between cities but the inspiration for the festival came from a yoga gathering before he played Red Rocks last year when over two-thousand fans showed up. As the afternoon proceeds, the audience is gifted with music by Trevor Hall, Brett Dennen and SOJA. Due to Chicago traffic, I only caught SOJA's inspiring set which featured a cameo from Franti on their great collaborative single "I Believe". Right before Franti's headline spot, he came out to introduce a new talent, Sonna Rele who captivated the crowd with two songs before making appearances during the headline set. She's a London-born singer who is currently working on her debut record for Motown Records and she is one to watch.
Opening his energetic ninety-minute set with "I Don't Wanna Go", Franti kicked-up the energy level ten-fold capturing the audience's hearts demanding the crowd "Put your hands up high". "Stay Human (All the Freaky People)", "Light Up Your Lighter" and the sensual and mellow R&B styling of "All I Want Is You" captivated the crowd. With a limited set and curfew, Spearhead's arrangements were tight and succinct. The opening four numbers were from four different records proving he is an artist with a vast catalog but only a few hits. To some musicians this would be a disadvantage but for Franti this allows him to clasp all corners of his catalog never shying away from any album. Artists with longstanding relationships with the radio are trapped by their success meaning their shortened sets rely on hit, ignoring those deep catalog cuts that turn someone from a fan to a diehard. Franti understands his audience discovered him from a variety of experiences and he crafts a set that appeases all of them. There's a difference between being a performer and an artist and Franti and Spearhead are clearly artists.
Making his way into the crowd, Franti had his tech bring him a guitar and headset allowing him to perform the next few songs from a seat halfway back on the floor of the crowd. "Let It Go" provided an expressive release for the crowd whose arms reached for the sky like their lives depended on it. Trevor Hall joined Spearhead onstage and looked down on the audience with a sense of wonder and I am sure it's the same look he has every night. It segued into Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved", in a sing-a-long people on the other side of Lake Michigan could hear. Making his way back to the stage, he performed crowd pleaser "The Sound of Sunshine" with a few dozen oversized balls making their way throughout the crowd. His current single "11:59" was up next with Sonna Rele joining the band once again. Her vocals have been added to the single version and she can also be seen in the newly debuted video as well. He introduced the song as "This is about loving those close to you with everything you got" before he took to the crowd with Rele in hand before they stood on top of seats in a fist-throwing moment that was nothing short of revelatory which included a snippet of the Lumineers "Hey Ho" . "11:59" could be misinterpreted as heavy handed but the live performance strips the song of any misinterpretations. His latest record All People is a tour de force pop record brimming with an awareness and consciousness of life's inquisitive charms. This is music that matters. It's creeps into the crevices of your mind and body as it works at expunging the negativity, demons. His performance of "Life is Better with You" was especially affecting with him speaking of the charitable organization he helped found, Do It For The Love Foundation. It's a foundation that allows for music fans with handicaps and life-threatening diseases to travel to shows by their favorite artists. On the side of the stage for the entirety of the performance was a handful of those in wheelchairs and during the final song of the evening, "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)" (which included a snippet of the Proclaimers "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)", they were all onstage front and center. Who else does this? No one; that is who, not a single artist on this planet does anything this heartfelt, this genuine or this caring. These are individuals who have daily struggles most of us can't fathom and all Franti wants to do is bring a bit of joy into their life which he succeeds at wildly. The mantra of "I'm Alive" sums up everything he stands for, providing a silver lining to his audience they can hold onto.
During the encore, Franti performed two new songs recently written from an experience with his teenage son who has just been diagnosed with a chronic kidney disease. Despite the upheaval of his life, he finds a way to share this experience with the audience. The first song (I believe) is called "I Will Be" and the second was called "Everybody Out To Hug Somebody". His frankness with his audience is another endearing quality because most stars are careful in terms of what they share with their audience, always keeping them at bay. Over time I have found having ongoing and long term relationships with these acts through their music to be difficult and disingenuous but with Franti, he makes you feel as if you know him through his music. Art should make you realize that your life isn't ordinary but extraordinary. What makes it astonishing is how you choose to live it and whom you share it with.
My favorite song on All People is the throbbing plea of "Closer To You" and during this show, Franti made an impression on me that will never leave me and by reading this, it should never leave you either. The venue located on the Chicago lakefront was expanded this year to accommodate larger shows by the likes of the Dave Matthews Band and Phish. There are floor seats, a standing area and a few sections of bleachers. On the pining and driving "Close To You" Franti entered the crowd and made his way to these bleachers which only had a few dozen fans sitting here. He made his way to the top of the bleachers as he sang his heart out, "I don't wanna be your friend no more/I only wanna be your love" and as the fans surrounded him his vocals became more impassioned, the crowd on the floor stood there in awe at the inconceivable display of love and those in the bleachers received their fair share of hugs and high-fives to stay with them long after the show. Despite the good fortune and success Franti has enjoyed in the last few years, I don't necessarily look at him as a celebrity, but I do believe he's an artist whose message is sincere . There are musical acts with larger audiences, but few are as genuine as the one Franti shares with his audience, which grows with every performance because there isn't a performer on this Earth who gives more than Franti. Before the evening's final song, he said something that struck me; "You never know who your family is going to be". Those fans in the upper reaches of the venue that Franti went to during "Close To Me", they'll most likely be lifelong fans as a result of that interaction. In a day and age where fans are divided more than they ever have by VIP experiences, Franti showed the audience that every fan counts regardless of where they can afford to sit. This is a valuable lesson other musicians could learn from Franti, because as long as your audience believes you care about them, then they'll consider you family and what I witnessed at the Chicago Soulshine show was one gigantic family who is aware, engaged and alive.
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's Soulshine Tour
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