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Michael Franti & Spearhead: A Leap of Faith Review

by Anthony Kuzminski

I know I'm far away from home but I know I'm not alone
-"I Know I'm Not Alone"

A few months back a friend and colleague told me of Michael Franti and called him the "Modern Marley", which automatically made me cautious. While I've always admired reggae, I have found every artist who has followed in Bob Marley's untimely death (including his own sons) have had a hard time reinventing the wheel. They come off as carbon copies of the godfather of reggae. Despite my suspicions, I went out and bought "Yell Fire" and to my great surprise, the praise my mentor threw upon him was more than well deserved. Franti and his group Spearhead is this generation's Bob Marley. I'm not really sure what how one would define Franti's genre of music. It has elements of reggae, hip-hop, ska and rock, but in my mind, all that matters is this is an artist with soul. His music is inspiring, uplifting and socially conscious. Little did I know the "Yell Fire" record was merely a footnote in this man's legacy.

In 2004, Franti decided to go to Iraq and other war torn countries with his guitar to see if he could make sense of the daily violence around them. The resulting film, "I Know I'm Not Alone" is playing at special screenings, film festivals and is available on DVD and may very well end up on my ten best films of the year list for 2006. It's a compelling and invoking film which does not criticize governments, but merely raises questions. It puts the people of these countries at the forefront who live life day to day struggling under harsh circumstances most of us could not fathom. This is one of those films one will not forget anytime soon. The human spirit soars in this film and reminds us that many of the obstacles we encounter in life are insignificant compared to the struggles of those featured in this film.

Michael Franti and Spearhead rode through Chicago to the House of Blues the Saturday before Halloween for what would turn out to be an astounding performance. Even before a note had been performed, the mood within the room was thrilling with a West Coast Grateful Dead aura encapsulating the audience where everyone appeared at ease and ready to be moved. Franti and Spearhead were at home and in their element mixing gorgeous pop sensibilities with reggae flavor right from the evenings opening notes of "Time To Go Home". The crowd was entranced as they shook back and forth mimicking Franti as he preached his form of peace through his music. Not only did Franti entertain, but his performance was all about exuberant joy and elevation. For anyone who entered the music hall with repressed emotions, they were able to unleash them as they swayed to the music. The album's title track, "Yell Fire" showcased Franti's message of hope with a visceral power that found the crowd on the brink of losing it, and it was only the evening's second performance. The show was heavy on material from their most recent album, "Yell Fire", an evangelical collection of hymns which are compelling and high-spirited. The show was like a revolutionary peace rally where the music expanded and improved on the magnanimous record. The audience hung on every note sung by Franti as they were ready to follow him anywhere.

Girls and boys hear the bass and treble
Rumble in the speakers and it make you wanna rebel
Throw your hands up, take it to another level
And you can never, ever, ever make a deal with the devil
-"Yell Fire"

"People In The Middle" showcased reggae in its purest form while the spare ballad "Sweet Little Lies" found Franti subduing with soft sentimentality after the jolting opening that preceded it. Few artists can take their crowds to such extremes in such a short period of time. Concerts live and die on momentum and even when the band slowed things down, they managed to keep the crowd completely absorbed. Franti is a free yet dedicated spirit. Like singer-songwriter Will Hoge, Franti takes a catchy melody, records it and makes it something larger than life in concert. I can't remember the last time there was such a free flowing feeling at a show. Not only was the music contagious, but the band was exhilarating in their delivery of each of these songs. "Hey Now Now", "One Step Closer", "Light Up Ya Lighter" and "Please Take Me Home" was enthralling as the crowd became more emotionally invested and entranced as the evening went on. This wasn't because of any substances in the room but because of the band and fan evolving their relationship. There are dozens of acts out there today who couldn't pay their audience for applause, yet the Chicago crowd was with Spearhead every step of the way as if they were one giant community.

The biggest accomplishment of this evening was that Franti and Spearhead delved into political topics, yet this was not an evening about the left and the right. Never once did Franti drown his audience with speeches that alienated his audience. He didn't bash any politician by name or political affiliation, merely letting his music do the talking without insulting anyone. It was refreshing to see an artist be compassionate about topics that truly matter who at the same time didn't offend anyone. "East To West" promotes a message of tolerance, peace and being free. This was something that was not lost on the crowd. One must admire for Franti not being afraid to take political subjects head on, while being able to break it down to a human element. This is why his music unifies rather than divide. This is where politicians fail time and time again.

The band cued up "I Know I'm Not Alone", a bold song with a U2 influence which fused the 1,400 in the audience with an unyielding force for the encore. A great performance engages and inspires the audience and "I Know I'm Not Alone" did just this. Music is more than being about celebrity, ego and image. It's about lifting your spirits and inspiring you to live a better life. It's about helping you through trying times in your life and making you believe in yourself when the world is against you. This is what Michael Franti and Spearhead are all about. They are an unconventional hip hop artist with the spirit of reggae flowing through their veins. Franti's physical presence is rousing as he conducts the crowd with his movements and music giving the crowd a deep sense of empowerment. Franti and Spearhead delivered their fusion rap-rock-ska-reggae music to a near sold-out crowd which not only elevated their hearts and minds, but their souls as well. They proved that despite our inner struggles, the communal feel of music will ensure that none of us are alone in this world from Baltimore to Bagdad to Israel to Ireland.

I was fortunate to spend some time with the gifted Franti post-show. What I found was an artist who merely wants to make a difference in the world. He wasn't standing on top a pulpit preaching but merely talking to each and every person as an equal looking to share a common interest. He's not concerned with money, ego or the trappings of success; he's merely concerned with making a bond with people and lifting their souls, showcased magnanimously on the track "Everyone Needs Music". In a world of impending doom, it's refreshing to see an artist attempting to elevate hearts and minds rather than overloading them with unnecessary posing. He sings very simply about peace, love and freedom. The world may be a very sinister place full of evil characters and wars, but one must admire the romantic sincerity of Franti's message makes us all feel like we're not alone. As long as Franti continues on his mission to make music, I know I will never fully be alone.

Everyone deserves music, sweet music
Even our worst enemies Lord, they deserves music, music
Even the quiet ones in our family, they deserve music

Anthony Kuzminski can be found at The Screen Door

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