Taken from Monterey County Weekly (May 26, 2016)
Now in its seventh year, reggae-rock Cali Roots Fest goes back to its roots
by Adam Joseph
Photo by Nic Coury
Michael Franti on politics evolving along with media: “FDR understood radio, Kennedy understood television, Obama understands the internet and Trump understands reality TV.”
Michael Franti’s music has taken on several different forms over the past 25 years: The singer/songwriter’s journey began in a somewhat primitive state, The Beatnigs, which Franti describes as “just beating on pieces of metal and shouting poetry over it.” The Beatnigs evolved into The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, which employed a more electronic approach, fusing a smattering of samples with drum machines. With the 1994 formation of Spearhead, the music graduated to live instrumentation.
Through those iterations, the songwriting has always remained the one element that keeps a consistent path.
“I write songs about my values and my beliefs, things that are taking place in the world and what’s dear to my heart at the moment,” Franti explains. “Right now is a super challenging time.”
Franti conveys those challenges throughout Soulrocker, the outfit’s ninth full-length record, which drops Tuesday, June 2.
The elaborate tapestry of orchestral R&B, hip-hop interludes and ’90s reggae that fuels “Good to Be Alive Today” accompany Franti’s vocals, covering everything from ISIS and drone attacks to unemployment and gun control. The anthemic and atmospheric vibe of the album bookend “Love Will Find a Way,” written in response to the 2015 Paris attacks, radiates with Ladysmith Black Mambazo world chants. Franti opens a window into his personal life with the contemporary roots reggae jam “Once a Day,” inspired by the unbreakable bond his family has forged as a result of his son’s struggle with a rare chronic kidney disease.
These tunes represent a small sample of Soulrocker and what to expect when Michael Franti and Spearhead make their second appearance at the California Roots Music and Arts Festival (8pm Sunday, Cali Roots Stage).
“A soulrocker is someone who lives from the heart with compassion for all,” the dreadlocked frontman explains. “A soulrocker has tenacious enthusiasm for music, life and the planet.”
Cali Roots founder and co-producer Jeff Monser qualifies as a “soulrocker.” Six years ago, he followed his heart and risked everything financially to establish what’s become “the biggest reggae-rock festival in the world.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning,” Monser says. “There was no master plan.”
A week before Cali Roots’ 2010 day-long debut – which brought out 1,700 concertgoers to see 15 bands including The Dirty Heads – Monser told the Weekly, “A few years down the road, it could turn into a three-day festival on Memorial Day weekend every year.”
That is exactly what Cali Roots has become: Last year, over 30,000 people attended the three-day fest. In addition to reggae-rock favorites and Rasta luminaries that included Steel Pulse, Dirty Heads, SOJA, Slightly Stoopid and Iration, 2015 also boasted music outside the reggae-rock genre, including Philly hip-hop group The Roots, quirky hip-hop/blues of G-Love & Special Sauce and L.A. punk icons Fishbone.
“One of the things all of those artists have in common is the ability to be uncompromising in their truths,” Franti says. “They have all charted their own course and have insatiable enthusiasm for music.”
Aside from the Minnesota hip-hop duo Atmosphere (6pm Friday, The Bowl), this year’s 40-plus group lineup doesn’t veer much outside the reggae-rock scene. Along with Franti, other highlights include SoCal-rooted reggae-rock/hip-hop hybrid Slightly Stoopid (9:30pm Friday, The Bowl), reggae icon Barrington Levy (4:10pm Friday, Cali Roots Stage), Stephen Marley (6pm Saturday, The Bowl), Damian “JR GONG” Marley (9:30pm Saturday, The Bowl) and Cali Roots veterans Rebelution (9:30pm Sunday, The Bowl).
Franti, meanwhile, jumps from talking about Soulrocker to the importance of voting in the upcoming election.
“There are so many things that are of great concern – the increasing divide between rich and poor in this country, homelessness, police violence,” he says. “I think we all have the ability to vote 365 days a year, with the way that we spend our dollars and the ideas we support.”
Franti stands firmly against the negativit platforms in Donald Trump’s campaign. “My personal values and beliefs couldn’t be further from a candidate who would want to ban entire groups of people from entering our country,” he says. “Some friends have said if [Trump] is elected, they’re leaving the country.
“I feel the opposite: I love America and I’m going to stay here and work hard every day to make the ideals I value become reality.”
Some of the issues most important to Franti include economic opportunity for everyone, developing an easier path to citizenship and expanding our renewable energy portfolio.
“I never endorse candidates, I endorse ideas,” Franti says. “I’ll be voting for Bernie Sanders because we share a lot of values.”
CALIFORNIA ROOTS FESTIVAL begins 11am Friday, Saturday and Sunday, May 27-29. Monterey County Fairgrounds, 2004 Fairgrounds Road, Monterey. $190 (plus $27.59 fees)/three-day pass; $85 (plus $12.89 fees)/single-day pass; VIP sold out. http://www.californiarootsfestival.com/