@shiftywhiteguy: In 2007, prior to going to Bonnaroo, my good friend Phred made a really convincing case as to why I should make sure to see Michael Franti & Spearhead. Phred has hardly ever steered me wrong,* so I gave them a shot. In ’07, he played an afternoon set at Which stage in the height of the day’s sun. I went in with neutral expectations, and it ended up being at least an entertaining enough show to sit through the entire set. That is really saying something when you’re playing on one of the non-tent stages in the middle of the afternoon, and your audience is only slightly removed from being cooked like rotisserie chickens. However, I wasn’t exactly blown away, and would have given that set a grade in the high sixes/low sevens. ** I was in no hurry to go out and buy his album, but I was definitely entertained.
So, when I saw Franti on the bill again this year, I had every intention on catching at least some of his set. And, from the very first second of the show, it became very obvious that his later start time made all the difference. He played on the same stage as ’07, but had a post-sundown start time this year. Without the distraction of the heat, Franti’s set takes on an entirely different feel.
For those who are not familiar with Michael Franti and Spearhead, they’re a full-band ensemble with a style containing elements of hip hop, reggae, and jam-band style rock. There is absolutely nothing notable about the music itself. The lyrics are generic, and all about fun-time hippy stuff like universal peace and love. Franti’s band is actually pretty talented, but they don’t do anything crazy. Everything is technically pretty simple, and you’re not ever going to listen to a Franti and think things like “Holy shit, did you hear Spearhead’s guitarist? He shredded that solo!”
But, Michael Franti himself, despite not being a notably great musician, is an exceptional showman. If you’re not thinking about things like how freaking hot you are, he will keep you very entertained. First of all, you can tell he genuinely loves to perform. He has the biggest, goofiest smile throughout the entire set, and is having a blast every second on stage. Second, he insists on crowd involvement and gets it. He is constantly bantering with the crowd, and his stage presence and command over the audience is really admirable. Third, I’m pretty sure he’s Batman. At the end of his set this year, during the last song, he kept popping his head out of different parts of the audience. I could not figure out for the life of me how he could possibly get from one end to the other so quickly and unnoticed.
Now, I still have no intention on buying a Franti album, and furthermore, if I did own one, I couldn’t picture myself getting in my car, looking through my cd’s and thinking “Ooh, Spearhead. Yes, it’s definitely a Franti day.” But that’s exactly what makes his live show so impressive. On a recording, I wouldn’t think much of what I was hearing. But live? The show was so incredibly danceable, I couldn’t stop myself, and the thought of going to a different stage didn’t even enter my brain. Isn’t that what makes a notable Bonnaroo set? The idea that you don’t even consider leaving the show you’re at, when so many other awesome options are out there, speaks volumes.
This puts Franti in weird territory. I can only think of a few bands that are significantly better live than their recorded music would lead you to expect. Gogol Bordello, Neon Indian, and Ghostland Observatory are a few off the top of my head that outperform their music. But, Franti isn’t just better than his music, He entirely transcends it. I would actually listen to Gogol Bordello, Neon Indian, and Ghostland Observatory albums. They just happen to be better and more fun when being performed live. I wouldn’t ever think to listen to Spearhead album. I give their music a sub-6. But, a can’t-miss show. The performance this year was in the high 8/low 9 range. I can’t decide if that’s a compliment to Spearhead or not, but I do know I’ll never skip Franti if he’s on the bill. That would be crazier than playing soccer on hallucinogens.
*I on the other hand, have steered him wrong several times. Advice given by me to Phred in high school: “Dude, you can definitely play soccer on hallucinogens. You’ll be totally fine.”
**Yes, I know there’s a new FC grading system. I didn’t start sending text messages until 2006…I’m not the type of guy to hop on board with new methods right away.