I've seen Michael Franti and Spearhead close to a dozen times in the last decade and the two shows at Thalia Hall this summer rank at the top. They were not the largest crowds or venues, but the band gave intimacy of a coffee shop while delivering a stadium style performance few could ever match. The wakefulness he brings to his songs is unparalleled. It is easy to be distracted by a melody or mood, but Franti encourages and engages his audience like no other. Each night I walked out of the venue soaring and thankful for what I saw and felt knowing I was going back into the world with focus and cognizance. In the days following the Franti show, I watched the Rolling Stones invaded Milwaukee's Summerfest for a career capping show flexing their R&B blues-rock groove and daring anyone else who has ever picked up an instrument to go as far as they have. At Chicago's United Center, home of the legendary Bulls and Blackhawks, U2 took to the pulpit in a multimedia extravaganza paired with bristling arena-rock that may rank as the single greatest arena setup ever attempted and despite seeing arguably the two greatest live acts in the history of the live era, Michael Franti and Spearhead matched them for power, expressive relevance and feel-good vibes song-for-song.
Opening both shows with a slightly reworked fist-pumping "Hey Hey Hey", Franti and Spearhead immediately lifted the spirits of everyone in attendance and opened a conversation that would last over the course of the two nights. Eyes opened, smiles abound and cheers rang out from the crowd like a Sunday morning gospel choir. In recent years, Franti has played to much larger crowds at festivals in Chicago (Dave Matthews Band Caravan in 2011, the Taste of Chicago in 2012, the Lincoln Park Zoo and Chicago Bears kick-off in 2013 and the lakefront Soulshine tour in 2014) and despite the more intimate nature of Thalia, he and his five piece band gave every ounce of their mind, body and soul for the Chicago die-hards. The blue-sky optimism reigned supreme on "The Sound of Sunshine" as dozens of large yellow balloons took over the hall but it wasn't the props that made the performance stand out, but a young girl Franti invited on stage to harmonize with him on the chorus. Shifting his focus from hardnosed politics, Franti has spun his missive inward into sunny sugar fueled messages which in the hands of a lesser artist could be misconstrued but in the hands of master musicians like Franti and Spearhead, they hoist these eye-to-eye combat missions into songs that matter.
The entire concert was accentuated by the atmosphere of Thalia Hall which was unused for 53 years and it's stunning. Located on the second floor of a restored and historical building in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, you walk into a space that is both intimate and vast. The sight lines are clear with an elevated staged and the width of the floor provides the crowd breathing room whereas older venues in Chicago you often feel like you've been sandwiched and locked like spam in a can. The drink menu is vast, bathrooms are clean and on Saturday night's there is a hot dog stand in the room on the far right side, owing a homage to several Southside Chicago neighborhoods where hot dog vendors took over corners selling their salty wares. The venue choice and the performances were huge gifts to the Chicago fans that have been yearning for more intimate shows in recent years and they exceeded any and all expectations.
My wife accompanied me the first night and walked away filled with a euphoric step in her walk. Michael Franti came up with a punk rock background in his band the Beatnigs and he's never left the in-your-face aesthetic behind. During the course of his two Thalia Hall shows, it's not an exaggeration to say he spent half of the show in the crowd. It may be easy to dismiss this since it is in a smaller venue but at the outdoor Northerly Island last summer and opening for John Mayer in 2010; the size of the venues did not stop him from bringing the show to the fans in the seats. No other act on the planet does it as well as Franti. Finding a musical artist whose presence expands beyond a festival show or a hit single, but Michael Franti and Spearhead have been and continue to be one of the world's most potent and powerful live acts. They can tackle any audience in any venue. In recent years as a result of the "Say Hey (I Love You)" phenomenon, more children have appeared at the band's shows and they're always welcomed onstage. In Chicago, a young girl harmonized with Franti on "The Sound of Sunshine" while another shredded and wailed on the electric guitar before the night's final song bringing the crowd to its knees and to the astonishment of the band on-stage so much so, they invited them back the next night to flex their musical muscles in front of a different audience. There is no division between band and fan here and there are no other shows quite like this. As powerful as Franti is as a front man, much credit for the overall execution needs to be given to the four-piece backing band Spearhead who are equipped for any terrain whether it be a festival stage or a coffee house. There is absolute power which they achieve through the command of their instruments. This may seem like an obvious trait to point out, but you would be stunned at how many acts are tested by adapting their show and songs to dissimilar environments, whereas Franti and Spearhead adapt to their surroundings effortlessly.
There's a fine line between being uplifting and yet not feeding hollow words to your audience. On "Love Will Find A Way", he spoke to the crowd and said "Our country is an idea to a lot of people...everyone can succeed". He doesn't sugar coat realities yet points us to the light. Painted with upper chord riffing and a reggae vibe, the audience was humming along by the end of the song. It's uplifting yet ingenuous all the same. Followed immediately with the dance beats of "All People", Franti made his way through the crowd high-fiving every fan in sight. The searing "Yell Fire" was matched by the audience who swung and served their arms while apocalyptic love story of "11:59" absorbed the crowd as he found a way to take the audience to the intersection of politics and love. During "Closer to You" Franti made his way to the balcony where he interacted with every single person and even had one elderly gentleman raising his walker to the sky. As the crowd watched from below, you couldn't help but be in awe of the man and his drive to make a connection. I've never seen such joy at a concert. This is the part of the show where being in the crowd becomes something more than a gimmick but a minor miracle that takes the audience to a spiritual plane that quite possibly only U2 can match.
While his post Yell Fire material has skewed more towards sanguine blue skies but they never glide too far and always forcing their audiences to think. The crowd bopped and grinded to the reggae-heavy "Stay Human", before seguing into "Hello Bonjour" from his 2006 masterpiece Yell Fire largely influenced by his personal visit to Iraq in a war ravaged country. Franti dedicated the song to the people of Charleston, South Carolina who just days earlier experienced the loss of nearly a dozen people from a senseless crime. Despite the big bass grooves of the song, you instantly felt that Franti always wants his audience to celebrate life, but also been keenly aware of the hardships other endure.
During the second night, it was two new numbers that delivered a devastating blow to the heart and ones that hearken back to his socially conscious days. "Same As It Ever Was (Start Today)" was dedicated to all police officers, those who work for justice and to those who have lost their lives through violence. It's more than a song but a prayer in the hopes for a better tomorrow. It's not a one sided story, he lays out the injustice that's prevalent in American society but also turns the mirror "I'm not saying that I am any better / All I'm just trying to say is we all could do a lot better". Franti was in the middle of the floor with his two hands gripped around his microphone and his eyes were shut with an overpoweringly deep level of concentration. It's a lesson of history and love that has stayed with me every single day since the performance. Franti isn't afraid to speak up for those who don't have a voice and he marries his message with one of deep compassion and an even deeper understanding of the human condition. The new song (and name of the tour) "Once a Day" was released in the days following the Thalia Hall shows and it's another buoyant anthem full of encouragement and arm-swaying glee. This music is the antidote for our troubles. I wish I could have bottled the feeling within that room and keep t forever. I am not sure if heaven feels this good. This is communal gathering where we try to understand each other a little more. He tries to find a way for us to celebrate life but also be aware of the hardships of others. Each show is an awakening and a reminder of what it is to be alive and aware.
U2 and the Rolling Stones are arguably the two biggest rock bands on this planet and yet inside the friendly confines of the gorgeous Thalia Hall in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, Franti and Spearhead matched U2 and the Stones song-for-song with a bristling catalog that confronts and comforts the listener. Franti went, eye-to-eye with his fans sharing life's trials and tribulations over big beats, ripping guitar chords and lyrics that elevate the soul. In the end, his music brings us together and when we walk about of the venue and back into the real world, we understand (and hopefully care) about each other a little more. Franti is a man whose message matches his actions. These two shows at Thalia Hall were distinct and unequivocally mystic where the fans and the band lifted each other up. In the message of so much of the music, we continually ask ourselves if we can do better and whether or not we can see the light in the distance. We may often think it's far, difficult and unreachable, but with the soundtrack of Michael Franti and Spearhead we will be inspired to drive towards a new day and even if we don't make it, it will be about the journey that will make it all worthwhile.
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: Once a Day Tour
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