Words and photos by Bob Compton / bobcompton.com
Its the hands that you start to notice. His and theirs.
I recently joined Michael Franti and Spearhead on their "Yell Fire" tour. Night after night, once the show started everybody in every venue had their hands in the air for the whole evening, save during some of Michael's softer, acoustic numbers. During those, the audience was quiet, giving him and his words their rapt attention.
And at the end of every show, when most music "stars" who have slayed them for 75 minutes and an encore head for the tour bus, Michael Franti goes to the front of the stage and spends as much time as necessary shaking hands and signing autographs. Then he spends an hour or more in the greenroom or at front of house or in a tent doing meet and greets and interviews.
Before a show in Flagstaff, he spent an hour with some local high school students whose teacher had used some of his lyrics in a Modern American History course. In Santa Fe, he and Spearhead did a full band show (at 11am) for the Santa Fe Detention Center for troubled youths, and then spent an hour talking with them. All this after leaving Flagstaff at 3 a.m. and driving the 380 miles to Santa Fe.
Standing, as bass player Carl Young says, "six and a half feet above sea level," Michael Franti is an imposing figure. His long magnificent dreadlocks frame a kind and happy countenance that is all the best of his African Seminole Italian French heritage. He is, in short, interesting and delightful to behold.
The thing that stands out most, however, is his hands.
They are very big.
Big, strong, capable gentle hands that are expressive to a fault. You notice them constantly: in interviews when his is explaining or elaborating a point, high in the air as he stirs a crowd to a frenzy during one of Spearhead's blazing reggae/hip hop fusion songs, or wrapped around a guitar neck during an acoustic number that speaks to the soul of all present.
You notice them as hundreds of fans strain after the show to touch one of them. You notice them when he hugs people at the after-show meet and greets. Michael Franti has large, wonderful hands, and people delight in their touch. They are essentially a metaphor for the way his music touches people.
Spearhead is as bad-assed a band as anybody out there today, slamming airtight, funky groves that are powerful and exciting by themselves. But Franti's sheer presence turns it up ten-fold, at least. His unabashedly political lyrics reach a chord deep within each and every person in the audience, and his kinetic movement on stage delights and mesmerizes all.
There is absolutely no need for seats in any venue during a Michael Franti show; as a matter of fact, if there are any, the only get in the way. I found it amusing when, at the staid and stoic old Lensic Theatre in Santa Fe, the local promoter came out before the show and admonished the crowd that they could not jump up and down during the show for fear of damage to the beautifully restored venue.
The 800 plus people at the sold out show remained flat on their feet for about 1.5 seconds after Michael came out, and then threw their hands in the air and jumped for (and with) joy for the remainder of the hour and fifty minute show and through a three song encore.
Michael Franti made an indelible impression on me the first time I ever saw him perform. The High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California is my very favorite, and I was attending my second one in the summer of 2002 when Michael was the headliner.
The festival is held at the county fairgrounds, the main stage being located at one end of a quarter mile dirt track car racing oval. The festival organizers put down sod in the middle of the oval, and the merch tents surround the inside of the track, creating a beautiful grass meadow surrounded by white tents full of colorful merchandise. It is a four-day affair, and from Thursday til Sunday, some 10,000 music lovers are walking, eating, drinking and dancing on that grass sod as they enjoy musical acts from roughly 11am til 11pm each day.
It is a green and recycle concious crowd, and the festival officials do a good job of keeping the area relatively clean, but after four days of thousands of people, there is, as they say at Burning Man, "MOOP" or, matter out of place. When Franti finished his show late Sunday night, he came to the front of the stage and said, 'this is a beautiful and special place, let's leave it that way." Stagehands then handed out trash bags to the crowd, who began to pick up around themselves.
Then, to my amazement, Michael Franti, who had just finished blowing away a crowd that had swelled to over 12,000, got down off the stage, grabbed a bag, and spent some fifteen minutes picking up trash with the crowd.
When the lights came up, that racetrack infield had nary a small piece of cellophane on it. It looked like the night before a festival starts rather than after four days and thousands of people.
As I said, Michael Franti walks the walk.
This is a man who draws over 70,000 to his annual Power to the Peaceful concert every September in Golden Gate Park and who spent his own money to go to Iraq to see for himself. He's a man who makes himself available to more progressive causes than one can count and who essentially leads the peace movement in this country. Yet, the great bulk of "mainstream America" has never heard of him. I have a real solid feeling that that is about to change.
One closing thought: at 54, I am no bitter cynic, but a cynic nonetheless. I find that nothing alleviates my cynicism like spending time with and around Michael Franti.
Take, for example, this quote from an interview his did last month with the Santa Barbara Independent. Franti was asked, "So, is good or evil prevailing in the world right now?" He replied, "I don't really like to look at things in terms of good people and bad people. I try to look at it like we're all on our way to becoming right eventually. We're all gonna get there. When I look at what's happening in the Middle East today, I feel like the way that solutions are going to come is not by me proving my opinion is right and your opinion is wrong. The solutions are going to come when people on all sides are going to listen to one another and consider solutions that consider the other side. That's what needs to happen today."
As I read that, I can just see those big, gentle, magnificent hands of his moving in front of him, helping emphasize what he says.