My pledge for 2010 to only attend reasonably priced shows in smaller venues continued this past Friday night with Michael Franti & Spearhead at the Riviera Theater in Uptown. One of things I love about Spearhead is that you can count on a new album every eighteen months or so and a show in town on an almost yearly basis… in fact, most of the new album (released September 21st) was written and recorded on the road in hotels and buses… hard working guys this bunch, and a familiarity with their audience that only constant touring can generate. This was my 6th time catching a Spearhead show and they always satisfy… pumped with energy, great musicianship and songwriting at a level where you would expect them to be playing bigger venues… but knowing first-hand how much love Franti has for interacting with his audience, it’s easy to understand why he continues to choose venues with an intimacy that serves his show.
Friday night at the Riviera was no exception… sticking primarily to material from the brand new Sound of Sunshine album as well as a lot of songs from 2008′s excellent All Rebel Rockers, the band was tight, although at times it felt as though they were still working out set-list cohesion for this current trek… all in all however, most of the show saw the entire theater (including the balcony) jumping and sweaty, peace signs pumped in the air… in the following extended version of “Yell Fire!” you can tell that I didn’t realize he had jumped into the crowd… but I got it together quick enough to grab a pretty nice video that illustrates perfectly the crowd involvement you’ll always find at a Spearhead show…
6 foot 6 and barefoot for the last decade, Michael Franti is a first-rate songwriter who made the transformation (in the mid-90′s) from hardcore political dissident… to a much more melodic songwriter focused on messages of peace and love as opposed to any further negativity. The change of thinking has served him well as you just can’t help but love the guy… the political messages are still there… just delivered in a much softer way than back in his Beat Nig and Disposable Heroes era. These days, Franti is more on par with Bob Marley or a more anthemic Jack Johnson… and some might even say U2… in fact for the song “I’ll Be Waiting” from the new album, Franti most likely should be paying Bono & Co. royalties as this song could have been the 13th track on the Joshua Tree… but an anthem nonetheless and it surprised me how many in the crowd knew the words to the chorus for a song that hasn’t even been out a month. Going back to 2006′s Yell Fire, Franti seems to truly consider the live show in how he constructs Spearhead songs, they’re written to perform.
And how about that band? All the major core players from the last 3 or 4 tours or so were present and accounted for; Carl Young on bass guitar, Dave Shul on lead guitar, Manas Itiene on drums and Raliegh J. Neal, II on Keyboards… and as always there were a couple musicians you were unfamiliar with whose talents you now got the chance to enjoy… for this show it was back-up singer Jolene Rust who did a serviceable job, but unfortunately never received any sort of showcase… and then there was J Bowman on rhythm/lead guitar… who was given a bit of time in the spotlight and made the most of it delivering a couple of lifting solos… Few know that Bowman is a production partner to Michael Franti… He received writing credits on all but 2 of the tracks on the new album as well as serving as the albums producer and engineer… he also did extensive work in these same capacities on the All Rebel Rockers and Yell Fire! albums… it was good to see him out on the stage this time around… hopefully he becomes a regular member of the band moving forward.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the house mix was simply too loud for a 3 thousand seat theater… feedback was heard a few times, which just shouldn’t happen in a professional setting… and there was even one time when Shul was center stage embarked on a guitar solo when the right side main speaker column started to crackle and rip, which made him sort of cringe… I always wonder how this even happens… the mixing board was about 15 feet behind me and the problem persisted throughout the show…
But that’s the only sour grapes for this night which was an all around great time. Spearhead finished the show with Franti surrounded on stage by young and old for a pumped up version of “Say Hey (I love you)”… he specifically asked for kids and anyone over 60 to join him on stage… an 8 or 9 year old girl got to sing a chorus… plenty of dancing and hanging out… and when the song ended, Franti said goodbye to Chicago as he wished John Lennon a happy 70th birthday… and as “Imagine” began playing through the house system with the entire crowd singing along… Franti made his way down into the crowd where he walked around shaking hands and posing for pictures… we stayed on the floor until security asked us to leave at which time Michael as well as most of the rest of the band were still in the house… most likely the last ones to leave.
Stay human brothers… already counting the days until you return again.