Can Michael Franti save the world?

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Since the beginning of time, musicians have used their instruments and voices to convey messages. One need only look at artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, who used music to expose the wrongs of society and tell the stories that needed telling. Legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals even went so far as to say that "music will save the world."

For the past decade, Michael Franti and Spearhead have been spreading the message of peace. Now, with a little help from John Mayer and a hit song, the artist has a larger audience. Could Franti be the one who saves the world?  

franti-new4.jpg We live in uncertain times, filled with wars on all fronts. This country is at war in the Middle East, on battlefields and in the arena of foreign policy.

And, we’re at war with each other here in the United States, on seemingly every issue. Republicans and Democrats can’t even get a healthy dialogue going on how to make our health care system better without breaking down into petty bickering. Hell, even Democrats and Democrats can’t agree.

But, today, in the face of war campaigns and domestic battles, Franti’s message is one of unconditional peace.

In full disclosure, I’m a biased Franti fan. I believe in his sincerity. Yeah, he says "how you feelin’" to the point that it’s cliche’, it’s the subject of a drinking game. But, I don’t care, because the message is more important.

The whole Mayer/Franti pairing is a bizarre match. Where Franti is a guy who seems to be all-inclusive, Mayer’s recent actions show that he’s anything but. I had a chance to take in the pair’s show here in Memphis this past Friday night, at the FedExForum. Now, I can deal with Mayer’s guitar playing, because he’s got chops. But, as my wife remarked on the way home (we made it through roughly four songs of Mayer’s set), I can "listen to John Mayer’s music; it’s John Mayer as a person that’s unfortunate." As such, if I had my way, I wouldn’t be pairing two artists who seem to have such varying agendas.

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Franti on stage at FedExForum

From a purely logistical standpoint, I was skeptical of Franti making the leap to an arena, because it takes a certain kind of artist to be able to capture the audience in a large venue. The last time I saw Spearhead indoors, it was in a smaller club. For this tour, he augmented his band; bulked it up, presumably to account for the bigger rooms he’d be playing in. He had added a guitar player to his touring act to round out the instrumentals, and singer Cherine Anderson was on board as well.

Doubtful, I took my seat and after one song I realized that the band would rise to the demands of larger audience and space. With 17,000 plus people in the room (give or take those who hadn’t made it to their seats yet), Franti and Spearhead took the stage and immediately seemed right at home in the cavernous FedExForum.  The guy was everywhere – striding from one side of the stage to the other. He lept the barrier and cavorted up and down the aisles on the floor level.  Franti even brought audience members on stage – a group of four kids, two of whom took turns on guitar.

While the youngin’s were on guitar, Franti left the stage unnoticed, and for the next number, a spotlight turned to one of the sections in the middle of the room. About 15 rows up amongst the people, guitar in hand the dreadlocked frontmant started the next song.

He danced around the venue, in total command of the audience. He owned the FedExForum, and to prove it, at the close his set, he invited the entire room up on stage (security could not have been pleased with that decision.)

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Franti on stage at FedExForum

Now, I’m an admitted music snob.  I relish that small amount of satisfaction in knowing about a great band that millions of others haven’t seen or heard. That window slammed shut for me in the past few months with Michael Franti as his group has gained traction and popularity. 

And, this time, I’m okay with it, because the band’s message is one that I believe in, one that deserves a larger audience.

I’m as liberal as they come on most political issues. I think we’re fighting an unwinnable war over in the Middle East, so I agree with the lyrics in songs like "Light Up Ya Lighter" and "Time To Go Home." But, to get the breadth of Franti’s beliefs, watch his documentary, "I Know I’m Not Alone."

Franti went to the Middle East – to Iraq, Israel, and the occupied territories. He wanted to meet the people affected by the bloodshed, to see how the wars and conflict have affected them in ways that we don’t get to see on the news. Not many people are that dedicated. It’s easy to write an anti-war song from thousands of miles away, from the comfort of an air-conditioned room. But the better protest or message song undoubtedly comes from the guy on the ground.

franti-new2.jpgIt takes a bold person to travel to the Middle East like Franti did in 2004, especially when the journey is focused on conflict immersion, rather than sightseeing and traditional tourist pursuits. Having spent a month in Israel during my high school years, I’ve witnessed part of what Franti saw in his tour of Israel and the occupied territories. I’ve seen soldiers walking around with machine guns, because it’s just commonplace there. In the Golan Heights, I’ve heard bombs going off, because it’s part of life near the Syrian border.

Even then, my exposure is nothing compared to what Franti saw, because they don’t take adolescent tourists into many of the areas that Franti and his crew visited, all in the name of discovery.

What Franti walked away with was a grasp of the situation that most armchair pundits never get a handle on, and that’s how war affects the common man. I’m sure that there were parts of those countries that he stayed away from, but at the very least, he had a better vantage point on the situation than the overwhelming majority of Americans.

franti-new3.jpgHe took what he saw, and the result is Yell Fire!, one of the better albums of the last decade, filled with catchy songs and a message deserving consideratoin:

"If I’ve learned anything from this trip it’s that I’m not on the side of the Americans or the Iraqis or the Israelis or the Palestinians – I’m on the side of the peacemakers, wherever they come from." – Michael Franti. 

It’s a good thing that Michael Franti and Spearhead are playing to tens of thousands of people on a larger stage rather than the hundreds that can fit in clubs. Sure, this move isn’t permanent. He’ll inevitably move back to smaller venues once the current tour with John Mayer ends.

Franti has a Memphis date booked in June 12 at Minglewood Hall , a venue that can fit 1500 people – five hundred more than the last time he played a club here. He and his band likely won over thousands of new fans at the Mayer show. His enthusiasm is infectious.

The bulk of the material that he played at the FedExForum show was from the recent record or brand new, a little less politically charged. But, anyone who’s ever discovered a new band can attest to the fact that once you find the new stuff, you inevitably visit the entire catalogue. Send them to Yell Fire! first.

It’s unlikely that Michael Franti saves the world. But, all it takes is one fan that gets exposed to his music – one teenage girl who goes to a concert to watch John Mayer but discovers Michael Franti – to be inspired, grow up, and make the changes that humankind so desperately needs.

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