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Taken from The Providence Journal (February 17, 2010)

Musician Michael Franti gaining a new generation of fans

by rmassimo@projo.com

Michael FrantiMichael Franti says that a funny thing happens near the end of the shows that he and his band Spearhead are doing on their current tour opening for John Mayer.

“People don’t know who we are necessarily, but they’re getting up and rocking out and singing along, and at the end of the show we play ‘Say Hey,’ and then the audience knows that song and says ‘Oh! It’s THOSE guys!’”

Franti has been making music for nearly 25 years, first with The Beatnigs and later with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (best known for the homelessness meditation “Hole in the Bucket” and the AIDS anthem “Positive”), but the irresistible island bounce of the number-18 pop hit “Say Hey (I Love You)” is bringing him to a whole new gang of fans. “I feel like I’m a new artist again!” says the Bay Area-based singer.

“We get to play for an hour in front of a whole bunch of people we’ve never played in front of before . . . we’re getting a whole lot of new fans.”

(By the way, Franti says of Mayer’s recent racially charged remarks in Playboy, “I went and found John, and we had a private conversation. I told him I don’t approve of those kinds of racially charged remarks. . . . All of us have to live with what we say or do.”)

The 2008 “All Rebel Rockers” disc that “Say Hey” came from is cut from the same cloth — indestructible grooves including reggae, ska and R&B all come together in the service of lyrics that see the world with clear eyes but still want to unify rather than divide. It’s a bit of a change for Franti, whose earlier works include 2001’s “Stay Human,” a suite of songs about the death penalty, and 2006’s Yell Fire, about various worldwide armed conflicts.

He says that his younger self was “wanting to vent whatever I was feeling concerned or frustrated about in the world.” Now, however, “my goal is to create community through music, and so I want to write songs that [use] a little broader strokes. . . . If you write about connection or family or love or sadness, it’s deeper, and you reach more people than if it was as specific as one political issue.”

Part of his revelation came from a visit to Iraq several years ago. He played his acoustic guitar in the streets for people and the reaction wasn’t what he expected.

“I’d sing songs like ‘Bomb the World,’ where I sing, ‘You can bomb the world into pieces, but you can’t bomb the world into peace.’ And they’d say, ‘Sing us something we can dance to! It’s a good sentiment, but we’re living in this war; we want something that uplifts us.’”

It changed his outlook. “You see how simple it is to put something like a sheet of plastic on the ground to catch water. . . . And sometimes, all you need is a song to get people through to the next hour, the next day, the next week of their lives.”

If it sounds like Franti is celebrating the quality of resilience, he says that’s what his next record, to be called “The Sound of Sunshine” and to come out this summer, is about: “the resiliency of sunshine,” and the power to look at a sunrise or a sunset and feel the promise of a new day. The rhythm section and production team of reggae legends Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare are on the new record, as they were for “All Rebel Rockers,” Franti says.

Looking back on his earlier, more pointed songs, he says, “I just look at it like a painter looking at past paintings: That’s where you were when you were 25, and that’s where you were when you were 30. And hopefully when I’m 75 I’ll look back at this time and say ‘I thought I had it figured out; I really didn’t.’

“That’s the great thing about making music, and of having the opportunity to grow. I’m glad I didn’t just start out thinking, ‘How can I have the best pop song that can be in the Top 40 and sell millions of records.’”

In the meantime, he’s enjoying the tour with Mayer and the new exposure that his hit single has given him. He recalls a recent date in Jacksonville, where he went to play on the street for people waiting to get into the venue. It was so cold, he said, that “everybody was just waiting in their cars!”

So he went next door to a bar where a reggae band was playing and asked to sit in. When he started playing “Say Hey,” the band replied that they had just learned it the previous week. “So I felt particularly rewarded that we were now one of the cover-band standards!”

Michael Franti and Spearhead open for John Mayer at the Arena at the Mohegan Sun casino, in Uncasville, Conn., Friday night at 7:30. Call (800)745-3000 or go to http://www.mohegansun.com/ for tickets.

Roomful in Westerly

The tireless blues stalwarts Roomful of Blues play a home game at The Knickerbocker Café, 35 Railway Ave., Westerly, Saturday night at 9 p.m. The Knickerbocker is where it all started for Roomful, so even though the names and faces have changed a lot over the years, they should still wake up the echoes. Call (401) 315-5070 or go to http://www.theknickerbockercafe.com/ for tickets.


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