Watching Michael Franti and Spearhead in concert is akin to an attending a reunion, a wedding and a funeral in the same two-hour period. Franti has a capacity to express ecstasy and agony in the same two-hour window; he will make the heart flutter and break simultaneously. I have never seen a performer quite like Franti who is able to exhibit such mischievousness on one song and solemnity the next. During his recent show in Chicago, in support of his madly eclectic album Soulrocker Franti locked eyes with the entire audience and took us on a roller coaster of engrossing dance floor hymns ready made to save our souls.
As a member of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in the early 90s, Franti set down a path uniquely his own fusing hip-hop, punk, alternative music and urban rhythm into his work as he moved onto Spearhead in the mid-90s. Starting with Stay Human in 2000, he started down a path of hot-blooded passion never afraid to shine a light on social injustices of the world but also never leaving the more spiritual and sensual elements of humanity far behind. From an album standpoint, 2006's Yell Fire! was a bristling and poetic fireball record full of vibrant images inquisitive about the Iraq war, but with an intimate sense of the journey of the characters that embody his songs. It is this very affection that has fueled his recorded music ever since. From the worldwide smash "Say Hey (I Love You)" to "Hey Hey Hey" to "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)" Franti has created stories that are unswerving yet personal.
Opening with the hopeful anthem "Hey Hey Hey" Franti and Spearhead hit the stage with their hearts and arms open, literally and figuratively. The sanguine lyrics in an altered arrangement serve notice this was not your typical concert. On the "Sound of Sunshine", Franti looked upon the crowd with a bright gaze shining little rays of sunshine on the crowd with the luminous song. Most performers are not this wholehearted and affectionate. While Franti is a multi-talented musical maniac, we often do not see him for the rock star he is, but as a personal confidant. He intertwines his personality so that the crowd feels as if they are catching up with a long lost friend hearing tales of worldly expeditions, encounters and a path to where we want to go.
The set list is crafted to build a community in the concert hall, whether it is a club, theater, festival or arena. Franti segues from one venue to the next and somehow he loses none of the closeness in any of these venues. The current tour has a heavy focus on Soulrocker, his ninth record under the Spearhead name. It is an elaborate assemblage of big beats for big hearts. On "Get Myself to Saturday" Franti finds a way to celebrate life and make it spill over to the audience. The arrangement heavy on howls and synths, but the contagious chorus is an immediate sing-a-long. It was during this song that Franti made his way into the crowd and for the better part of the rest of the show; he never left it and only rarely returned to the stage. Those who have never seen Spearhead and Franti's willingness to engage so deeply with the crowd are usually shell shocked. "Summertime in Our Hands" is a ready-made radio hit made for drawn windows and breezy beach nights. It could be a folk song but with Franti's positivity and merriment, he makes it feel like a greatest hit we have been familiar with for years. The Concord Music Hall has these well-placed balconies on either side of the stage and for "We Are All Earthlings" he made his way to one of them and found a pregnant woman whom he dropped to his knees and sang affectionately to her belly ensuring the child will come into the world loving music.
Soulrocker is a earnest and captivating record full of Friday-night escapism married to EDM dance beats and acoustic guitars. The new sound may be jarring for many Michael Franti and Spearhead fans, but if you have followed his career trajectory this is part of their evolution as artists. While many may be seeking the low key solace of his reggae mastery on record, his live shows have evolved to soul saving epiphanies that are part dance parties and part prayer circles. Soulrocker married these two world rather magically as he brings the energy of the concert hall onto the record but holds his own and stays true to his musical personality. "Good To Be Alive Today" carried a weighty sadness. Franti spoke of being in Istanbul a few weeks back and his experience in the aftermath of their airport attacks. Never one to shy away from tragedies and the state of affairs of the world he does in such a manner that he is not talking down to his audience but empathizing with them.
"Crazy For You", "Once A Day", "11:59" and the show closer "My Lord" all featured a frenzied Franti who delivered each song with courage and fighting optimism. He tackles subjects most pop stars will not touch aside from a few carefully placed tweets. The participation levels from the audience are amongst the best I have ever seen and it is due in no part to the musical dexterity of Spearhead's five members. While the band holds the fort down on stage, Franti is an engine that drives the band and audience forward.
Soulrocker is a reflection of humanity that meets at the intersection of Saturday night and Sunday morning seeking refuge from the horrors of the world but who is acutely aware of the need for salvation. Aside from Butch Walker, I do not know if there is a living performer who puts as much into the show as Michael Franti. These songs capture leanness that distinguishes them from the album versions. The crowd is a community sharing in the life of someone close to you tackling life's issues, sharing in their joy and opening up about failures and heartaches. All of these emotions swept over me during the two-hour performance as I watched the crowd be aware of their place on life without losing themselves completely in the moment. In the last decade, I have seen more uplifting shows from him than just about any other performer and the number of performers is close to a thousand. The closest I have ever come to musical nirvana in my life is at a Michael Franti and Spearhead show.
A peaceful prophet armed with a guitar, a smile and a comforting hug, Michael Franti turned the notion of a rock god on its head. The live show is a spiritual soul lifter that acts as a celebration of life and community. From the in-your-face interaction with the crowd to the fist pumping rockers to the quiet observances, the audience loves these dichotomies and no other act on the planet marries the real world with such unbridled optimism like Michael Franti and Spearhead. When I saw his Milwaukee show in 2013, I wrote in my review that 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.
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
Read our review of Michael Franti & Spearhead's 2013 Concert.
Read our review of Michael Franti & Spearhead's 2014 Concert.
Read our review of Michael Franti & Spearhead's 2015 Concert.
Read our review of Michael Franti & Spearhead's 2010 Concert.
Michael Franti & Spearhead Live 2016: Miracle Makers
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