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Taken from CHARTattack (Nov 07, 2008)

Michael Franti Loves Obama

Toronto, ON@Kool Haus

by Kate Harper (CHARTattack)

3.5 of 5

Michael FrantiSolillaquists Of Sound pretty much blew the crowd away before Michael Franti & Spearhead began their set. The Orlando, Fla. quartet got the crowd roaring with their opening slot by sound manipulator DiVinci simultaneously playing three beat machines.

He played two with his hands and one with his face, and used the latter to pump out most of the opening song's beats. There's a common adage that DJs are "boring" to watch, but DiVinci shatters that notion. At times, he was jumping around and slamming his hands all over the beat machines so much that he was probably getting as much of a workout as a real drummer.

The alternative hip-hop group (composed of two married couples) also feature a rapper named Swamburger, vocalist Alexandrah with a powerful set of pipes that recalls both Amy Winehouse and Ani DiFranco, and a back-up singer named Tonya Combs. There's a shortage of truly vibrant openers, and though these guys certainly didn't upstage the headliners, they'll be ones to watch on the alternative/socially conscious hip-hop scene in the next few years.

Towards the end of Franti's two-and-a-half-hour set, he paused to make his third comment of the evening about U.S. president-elect Barack Obama.

"I hope this gives us some good change and that it spreads all over the world," he said, before speaking about how it was "an incredibly emotional experience to be voting for Barack Obama" and launched into a song that he said he and Spearhead "just wrote."

The song featured a chorus with only two words: Barack Obama. (Though we don't know the title of this song, we can only assume it's also called "Barack Obama.") The verses, meanwhile, featured a mixture of lyrics about the president-elect and the usual "Yes we can" optimism that the Obama campaign introduced to the world. That might seem a little bit ridiculous, but the crowd loved it and Franti had them in his hand the entire evening.

Although this number came at the end of the set, the tone was already a celebratory one. Franti makes sure every one of his gigs (regardless of who's president or has just been elected to office) is a paean to music, life and love, but there was an added edge this evening. As Franti said in the middle of the set, "It feels like a huge cloud has lifted." This tone might have had something to do with the fact that this was Franti's first gig after the U.S. election

The barefooted Franti, who hasn't worn shoes since 2000, began his set with a more rock 'n' roll version of the originally reggae-drenched "Hello Bonjour" from 2006's Yell Fire!. The track wasn't only an appropriate opener based on its numerous multilingual (English, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese) greetings, but it also seemed to suit the overall mood of the last few days. From there, Franti & Spearhead moved into "Rude Boys Back In Town" from his recently released All Rebel Rockers, Yell Fire!'s "Time To Go Home" and other more upbeat rockers from those two albums.

Anyone who sees Franti & Spearhead will quickly realize that Franti is a master of controlling a crowd. This is partly because his fans are a particularly devoted breed and are ridiculously obsessed with the genre-hopping musician. This is also because he genuinely cares about his fans.

Throughout the set, he got the crowd moving with his constant bids of "I wanna see everybody in this joint jumping right now!" and "Everyone, wave your hands like this!" Though this eventually got old, Franti's energy and optimism were infectious. That Franti's band (consisting of bassist Carl Young, guitarist Dave Shul, drummer Manas Itiene and keyboardist Raleigh J. Neal, II) are accomplished musicians also helped.

The middle of the set was filled with acoustic numbers from the two aforementioned discs, along with "Everyone Deserves Music" and "Never Too Late" from 2003's Everyone Deserves Music and "Sometimes" from Songs From The Front Porch, which came out the same year. The latter, with its chorus of "Sometimes I feel like I can do anything," was once again freakishly appropriate in context of current events. Franti also included more recent acoustic tracks like Yell Fire!'s "East To The West," "Is Love Enough?" and "Sweet Little Lies."

While the acoustic tracks are some of Franti & Spearhead's best, they made an otherwise high-spirited set drag a bit.

Franti & Spearhead then ran through more songs before leaving the stage, only to return for an encore that consisted of the aforementioned Obama song, "A Little Bit Of Riddim," "Yell Fire!" (in which Shul played the opening riff to AC/DC's "Back In Black," and it bizarrely worked with the song's reggae-inflected beats) and an extended version of "Say Hey (I Love You)."

Franti probably should have pared his set down to a much shorter (90 minutes, perhaps) mix of upbeat and acoustic tracks. The cardinal rule is to leave the audience wanting more, but Franti has such a fanatical following that the rule doesn't really apply to him.

Regardless of how exhausting this gig was, Franti & Spearhead's unique brand of genre-hopping, borderless music truly fits the zeitgeist of late, which is all about change, positivity and optimism. One also has to give him credit for jumping off stage at the end of his set and giving everyone in the front row a hug and kiss (which he does at every gig). He was sweaty and smelly by then, but so were the majority of the audience members, and one has to seriously doubt anyone who received a hug from the giant of a man (he must be nearly seven feet tall) was at all put off by the gesture.


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