Taken from The Denver Post (December 1, 2008)
Michael Franti & Spearhead @ the Fillmore
by Jason Blevins
Michael Franti at the Mile High Music Festival on July 19.
Photo by Laurie Scavo.
Wrapping up a two-month tour and a trio of shows at Denver’s Fillmore, Michael Franti and Spearhead were supposed to be tired. They looked weary. They did not, in any way, sound drained.
Franti and the four-man Spearhead cranked out more than two dozen tunes Saturday night, leaving the packed house wobbly from three hours of non-stop waving, hollering and hugging. The lanky, humanitarian maestro of the musical love-in, Franti can peddle peace and love like no other musician out there today. And Saturday’s show at the Fillmore was all about the love, with the joyous crowd more than willing to follow Franti’s behests to embrace your pals, raise your arms and make some noise.
Franti has come such a long way from his industrial punk, hip-hop roots, which debuted in the early 1990s with his Berkeley-based band Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. In the nearly 20 years since, Franti has emerged as a harmonious, barefoot-and-dreaded preacher, tickling his loyal flock with earthy, reggae-lilted hip-hop and fiery, confrontational sermons.
The new Spearhead album, “All Rebel Rockers” — the eighth since Franti formed the band in 1994 — leans heavily toward reggae and was recorded in Jamaica with reggae legends and riddum masters Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. But make no mistake, Franti and his band carry a deep commitment to hip-hop. They have developed one of the best blends of the two genres in the game today, marrying their trademark feel-good party rock hip-hop sound with Jamaican root rhythms and tones.
Franti launched Saturday’s show with a blast of hyper-speed tunes that served as a sort of Spearhead sampler. “Everybody Ona Move” blurred into “What I Be” and “Hello Bonjour,” all played a half-beat faster than usual. Then came a harried and “Get-Up, Stand-Up”-infused “Rude Boys Back In Town,” off the new album.
The reggae quickly and seamlessly dissolved back into hip-hop — led by the mighty and versatile bass tones of Carl Young — with Spearhead classic “People In The Middle.” Young held tight to the reggae, though, with a surprisingly authentic smash of UB40’s “Red Red Wine,” which Franti twisted into Musical Youth’s “Pass the Duchie” and his own breezy “Ganja Babe.”
Franti was joined by Jamaican vocalist Cherine Anderson, whose graceful harmonies harken back to old Spearhead, where the golden-throated Mary Harris and Trinna Simmons countered Franti’s message-driven growling with warmer, rhythm-and-blues crooning.
Even when Franti picked up the acoustic guitar Saturday night — handed off by a busy and oddly-helmeted guitar tech — the frenzied pace continued. Franti seemed in a hurry as he explained an Internet poll that picked Peter Tosh, Beatles and Grateful Dead tunes for Spearhead to cover during their three-show Denver stand. He seemed just as hard-pressed as he tore through the Beatles’ “Come Together,” featuring a flat and unengaging jam by Spearhead’s guitarist Dave Shul.
It’s hard to tell if Shul holds back so as to not encroach on Franti’s vibrations or he just isn’t fond of stepping up. Either way, his guitar work is largely uninspired and uninspiring. Not that the crowd cares. They’re there for Franti and Franti keeps ‘em happily engaged. His “Sometimes” featured a wholesale sing-along, indicating there wasn’t a single soul in the house that was not intimately familiar with the Franti goods.
During his “East to the West” acoustic delivery, Franti was joined by his West African drummer Manas Itiene, who deferred his hand drumming to Franti’s manic foot slapping on a hyper-mic’d bass box, making it clear who was driving the train.
The still-speedy ballad “One Step Closer to You,” featured amazing aerial dancers — glittery girls flipping and spinning from the ceiling to the floor on dangling drapery — flanking the stage. Franti quickly regained the spotlight with the rousing “Hey World (Remote Control Version)” and by noting the Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper had text messaged him that day, announcing he was hoping to attend the show that night. (Indeed, the late-night friendly Hick was spotted getting his groove late in the show.)
Franti’s “Yes I Will” bled into “All I Want Is You,” with Anderson returning and grabbing a nervous-looking fella from the crowd, who was likely very pleased he was chosen to do little more than serve as a backstop for Anderson’s booty shaking. An awkward and weak Dead cover, “Casey Jones,” was quickly buried before Franti flew into his impeccable and just awesome twist on Tosh’s “Steppin’ Razor.”
After a flurry of songs that each played like they were the last of the night — “(You Gotta) Walk And Don’t Look Back,” “Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong,” the sermon-like “Hey World (Don’t Give Up On Me)” and “I Got Love For You” — Franti and his crew raced from the stage.
The drape dancers returned for a three-shot encore that led with the Beatle’s “Revolution” and Franti’s own call to arms, “Yell Fire,” which ended with a strangely placed AC/DC “Back In Black” kicker. Then came the expected Obama revival — Franti has never steered clear from political proselytizing — which consisted of Franti endlessly chanting “Barack Obama” with a pair of girls dancing in hardly-flattering Obama sticker dresses.
The crew and band’s families crowded the stage for a final group hug/line dance that was mirrored on the other side of the stage as friends and Franti lovers embraced in a rare moment of universal PDA, just like the famous Coke commercial. Seriously, how many musicians can compel a group hug among thousands? Franti is like the Obama of music, bringing almost everyone together in a giddy and sometimes sappy, “ain’t-life-grand” lovefest.
Jason Blevins is a reporter for The Denver Post and a regular contributor to Reverb.