Saturday Night: Michael Franti & Spearhead At House Of Blues

Michael Franti & Spearhead House of Blues October 2, 2010

Check out photos from the show.

Hands are in the air immediately with the stupidly fun show opener "Love Don't Wait," as Michael Franti and his Spearhead instrumentalists file out onstage. Franti is a big dude, built like a basketball player. Saturday, he was clad in black sleeves, navy blue pants, an orange scarf around his neck and a pair of bare feet.

That's right, Franti has been walking the earth barefoot for 10 years. He later joked that his feet are made of nails and chewing gum.

If you had any problems before you walked into House of Blues, they disappeared once a grinning Franti and his excitable guitarists took the stage. Franti encourages jumping up and down throughout the show, and the audience obliged for much of the night.

Spearhead's music today is a potpourri of ol'-skool reggae, rock, hip-hop, soul and a little bit of riddim, a far cry from the angst-laden music of his early days.

As a founding member of The Beatnigs and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Franti originally set out to create politically charged tunes that reflected his social concerns. Soon, he learned about the moronic resentment that befalls any musician who dares ask people to engage in socio-political discourse.

Franti grew his hair out, took a more motivational approach and decided to explore his love for reggae and ska. Hip-hop - at least the type Franti was making in the '80s - was synonymous with rebellion, and wasn't exactly a lucrative affair. Franti slapped a dash of joy and saccharine on his cause, and Billboard success, here we come. Riddim twin towers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare behind him, 2008's All Rebel Rockers gave Michael Franti & Spearhead their breakout reggae album, featuring the insanely popular "Say Hey (I Love You)."

Franti continues to reach out to raise the fallen through the genuine joy that radiates from his music. His voice is rich, compelling and warm. He's tied to numerous social causes, and loves to smile. Think Joel Osteen with an acoustic guitar.

Franti's attitude is infectious. Bassist Carl Young works his charm with a cool demeanor. Guitarist Jay "Boogie" Bowman, who looks like Shane Battier if the Rocket were 10 inches shorter and had a Mohawk, keeps a permanent smile on his face. It's almost as if everyone on Team Spearhead had to pass a congeniality test.

Straightforward lyrics on the perilous state of our planet and the poverty of compassion grace Franti's albums. Trips to war-ravaged Iraq and Palestine helped shape his worldview. "Tell me that somebody stopped the war," he sings on "Sweet Little Lies."

Saturday's crowd was particularly ecstatic when he sangs those words. Still, you'd have to go back two albums and four years to find similarly themed lyrics. And that's no coincidence.

Musically, Spearhead is bubbly, organic and energetic. If you can't vibe to these guys, you don't have a pulse. There were no folded arms in sight Saturday night. Drums kicking. Bass bumping. Nothing else matters. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and Franti is throwing a dance party.

Franti's transition to more radio-friendly tunes seems to be yielding some success. Yell Fire, the album that spawned "Sweet Little Lies," debuted at No.125 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Two years later, All Rebel Rockers charted at No. 29, making it the highest debut of Franti's career until his latest, The Sound of Sunshine, bowed at No. 17 last week.

Franti's newfound penchant for a cheery sound is driven as much by his desire to throw a global dance party as his attitude of gratitude -he survived a near-fatal appendix rupture in 2009. He briefly narrates this story and lunges into a performance of "Gloria," which he wrote for all the angels that stood by him during those difficult times.

Aftermath was slightly surprised by the lack of diversity in the audience. White couples in their thirties outnumbered their counterparts from other groups. Parent/children combos and thirtysomething couples were numerous. Many teenage fans on hand Saturday were still playing with water pistols when Franti was wrecking college radio with "Water-Pistol Man."

It's not so much that Franti's socially conscious music has taken a back seat to dance ditties, it's that he's devised a different approach to advocacy. As the show drew to an end, it becomes apparent that Franti had been priming the ground for one last social seed.

First came the highly danceable tunes, then came the request to donate $5 to a shoe cause. When we came down from that dance substratum, what awaited was a simple yet thought-provoking message. On Saturday night, Franti saved one of last plea for the latter: Let the gays be.

"This is a song I wrote," he said, strumming his guitar, "It's not finished but I'd like to share it with you. It's a gentle reminder that you should be able to love who you choose." Lady Gaga, move over.

As Franti began to play this new song, the crowd flashed a mixed reaction of scattered handclaps dilluted by blank stares.

Though less radical than his Beatnigs days, Franti is still as Ghandian as ever. Looming larger still was the anthemic "Yell Fire!," during which he came down from the stage and joined the crowd, slapping high-fives as he strolled to the middle of the room grinning from ear to ear. He also did something we'd never seen anyone do at HOB: Make his way to the upper level mid-song and perform directly in front of the folks upstairs.

The ramifications of Franti's musical transition is skin-deep lyrics and sonically thin songs. The justification, however, is that he provides a mood shifter for others.

Saturday's concert followed through on his message of positivity, tolerance, and universal love. Toward the end of the show, a lady upstairs held up a sign that read: "3,000 miles, 2 days, 2 concerts." You can't put a premium on that type of dedication.

Franti understands something that most politically charged artists don't: warmth is the foundation of all social change. He's not perfect, but he's necessary.

Personal Bias: None

The Crowd: Lily-white high school kids and 30-something year-old couples.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Single ladies have the most fun. Just kidding."


Love Don't Wait All I Want Is You Have A Little Faith I Got Love For You Hello Bonjour Only Thing Missing Was You I'll Be Waiting East to the West Everybody Ona Move Sometimes Everybody Deserves Music Hey Hey Hey Rude Boys Back In Town Yell Fire! Sweet Little Lies Gloria Shake It The Sound of Sunshine Say Hey (I Love You)

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