Taken from The Quad-City Times (March 20, 2013)
Tribute act introduces audiences to Franti music
by David Burke
Ben Swanson, left, Pat Willis and Drew Irion
make up the Franti Project.(Contributed photo)
Here’s an idea: Start a tribute band for an act that not a lot of people have heard.
But that’s what Pat Willis has accomplished.
The veteran of such Quad-City music acts as Patio and Burnt McMelba Toast, Willis began the Franti Project, a tribute to Michael Franti.
“He’s basically a rapper who became a hippie,” Willis said. “He’s world-wide famous, big-time. But in the Quad-Cities he’s fairly unknown.”
The San Francisco-based Franti and his group, Spearhead, mix hip-hop, funk, reggae, jazz, folk and rock.
And the three-piece Franti Project follows suit.
“Most people do a tribute band to enjoy that music that everybody knows already. And that’s a great thing, that’s wonderful,” Willis said. “This is a little bit different because we’re doing stuff people don’t know. We’re turning them on by doing this tribute band.”
Franti has a big following among the music festival crowd, although Willis said he wouldn’t classify the group as a jam band.
“He came from a hip-hop, rap background and has become a lot more melodic,” Willis said of Franti. “It’s just so groovy and funky, and (he’s) reggae, so he gets into the festival mood.”
The Franti Project plays Friday night at the Redstone Room in the River Music Experience, downtown Davenport, as part of the venue’s “Deja Vu Rendezvous” series.
Willis, who has seen Franti five or six times, got pulled from the audience and onstage with his idol at a 2006 performance in Iowa City, which included Willis taking a stage dive into the crowd.
“It was the most memorable moment of my life, not just musically, but period,” Willis said. Getting in the front row during a daylight show, “I could see the absolute pure joy on (audiences’) faces of being up onstage with him, making their year, their life, in my case.”
Franti’s music is incredibly uplifting and full of energy, Willis said.
“It’s like going to a workout and he’s your aerobics instructor,” Willis said. “He’s constantly getting people waving, jumping, singing, clapping, all sorts of stuff.”
After five albums, Franti and Spearhead made it into the mainstream with the single “Say Hey (I Love You),” which rose to No. 18 on the pop music charts, selling more than 2 million downloads and physical copies.
“It just helps spread his message, which is a good thing,” Willis said of that mainstream success.
Willis asked drummer Ben Swanson and bass player Drew Irion to join him in the band.
Swanson had seen the act at the Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, Ill., near Peoria, but Irion had never heard the group until Willis handed him a compilation CD.
“A lot of his music will have just a driving, steady rhythm, a pulse, that can kind of entrance the audience, so to speak,” Swanson said. “I was a fan of just seeing him live. I didn’t have any CDs, but I knew of him and I knew his message was very positive.”
The Franti Project has already played five or six dates in the Quad-City area.
“I see a lot of familiar faces from previous shows,” Irion said. “We don’t have a huge following, but there are definitely people there.”
The Franti Project is following the band in another way: Like Spearhead, it is donating half of the money from each concert to a different charity. Past beneficiaries have included the Friend in Need Fund, farmers markets in the Quad-Cities and ailing local producer Rob Cimmarusti.
The Friday show will benefit the United Way of Western Connecticut, which includes the city of Newtown and Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of the mid-December shootings that killed 26 children and adults.
“We couldn’t be doing (these concerts) and not do that,” Willis said of the donations.
Information: 563-326-1333 or RiverMusicExperience.org
Also on the Web: www.facebook.com/FrantiProject