music / Columns

Jam Central Station: 2.18.16 – Michael Franti & Spearhead

February 18, 2017 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski

The story and evolution of Michael Franti going from a mid-tier festival act to an artist moving in the mainstream is fascinating. For most people, this was an overnight success, a band appearing out of nowhere to have a massive hit single. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and Franti and his band bad been mixing rock, reggae, and hip-hop for 15 years before ever coming close to the mainstream. However, after years of building a loyal fan base, the band is currently enjoying an exciting run of mainstream popularity. But it was anything but an overnight success.

The band’s journey starts with Michael Franti himself. As a biracial child adopted at a young age by a white family, Franti was pulled and influenced by a variety of elements and cultures. By the time he graduated high school, he had lived throughout most of California, although primarily in Davis. Franti described in an interview as a place where “white kids didn’t hesitate to call me nigger.” He fought back, but avoided getting in any real trouble. At 6″6′, he was an avid basketball player, and he played well enough to earn a scholarship to the University of San Francisco.

Living in San Francisco was a far cry from the suburban life he was used to. He was exposed to liberal politics and the San Francisco lifestyle, and began gravitating towards music, poetry, and politics. He befriended professors, revolutionaries, musicians, and anyone else who could help him understand and expand his worldview. He picked up his first bass guitar and soon quit the basketball team to concentrate on his music. In music and poetry, he found a way to relate to the world and express himself. He formed the Beatnigs, an abrasive, angry hip-hop/punk/industrial band focused on lashing out at society in the most hostile way they could. The band recorded an album and gained notoriety for underground shows they would throw, but they broke up after a couple of years.

After the Beatnigs, he and Beatnigs member Rono Tse formed the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopresy, a somewhat more straightforward hip-hop project. Franti continued to put his politics front and center in the music, which kept the band from reaching any real mainstream success. While hip hop and rap were firmly entrenched in their “gangsta” era, the Disposable Heroes were taking vocal stands against the first Gulf War, racism, violence, and other social issues. They became well known as an underground band, and were able to use that to open for such diverse acts as Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Arrested Development, and U2.

After a couple of years, however, Franti tired of putting forward a hostile and angry front on a nightly basis. He was proud of the work that the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprasy had done, but, as he put it, their music “wasn’t even a record I would listen to at home. The problem with the Disposable Heroes was that it was a record people listened to because it was good for them – kind of like broccoli.”

After disbanding the Disposable Heroes, Franti set his sights on making music that, while still political, was also accessible and was closer to his evolving political and social point of view of peace and community. The goal wasn’t to avoid political statements, but it was about putting the music first, and then listeners could digest the politics after hearing the music. His influences strayed far from the aggressive hip-hop that he had made a name for himself performing.

This diversity and change of focus led to Franti bringing together an eclectic group of talented musicians to form Spearhead. Franti’s vision for Spearhead went far beyond just political hip-hop. He wanted to put together a melting pot of influences and styles, and, most importantly, make music for people to enjoy first and foremost. The first result of this vision was the aptly titled Home, released in 1994 on Capitol. The album garnered almost universally positive reviews and gave Franti an opportunity to have his voice heard on a wider scale. The album was at times angry, fun, peaceful, and controversial, but it was always diverse. While the album was a critical success, the diversity of the music made it difficult for radio to categorize the band, which led to very little airplay.

Over the next couple of years, the personnel in Spearhead evolved considerably, but Franti kept the band moving forward. The band’s second album Chocolate Supa Highway was harsher than Home, and dealt with more difficult subjects. The album included guest appearances by Stephen Marley and Joan Osborne.

After Chocolate Supa Highwaythe band left Capitol Records, frustrated with the fact that the label was encouraging the band to collaborate with artists that didn’t fit their style. Because Capitol owned the rights to “Spearhead,” the band changed their name to “Michael Franti & Spearhead” and formed their own record label. Stay Human was released in 2001, and the album took a strong stand against the death penalty as well as other issues. The album was split between songs highlighting the wrongs and injustices of the world and songs helping people cope with what they saw.

With Stay Human the band really began finding their voice around how to express not just anger but also hope in the music. This tightening of their sound became even more pronounced with 2003’s Everyone Deserves Music. From the more pop-influenced title track to the quieter “Bomb the World” and the funky “We Don’t Stop,” the songs first were able to engage the listener and then convey their message. The band still wasn’t experiencing any radio success, but worldwide touring, consistent festival performances, and their own annual “Power to the Peaceful” festival, the band was developing a solid following not only in the hip hop community but in the jamband community as well.

In 2004, angered by the new war in Iraq, Franti traveled to the Middle East, accompanied only with his manager and some friends. He visited Iraq, not under the banner of the U.S. government but simply by himself, and also traveled to Palestine and Israel. He performed acoustically on the streets of Baghdad, in the homes of Iraqis, and for U.S. soldiers. This experience not only led to the creation of Spearhead’s next album,Yell Fire!, but also to a movie that Franti released that chronicled his trip. That movie, I Know I’m Not Alone highlighted not just what Franti saw in Iraq but also the different sides of the story, from families living in the war zone to what the Americans thought about the conflict.

While Franti’s first experience in filmmaking was a positive one, the album that came out of that experience was an even bigger success. Yell Fire! is simply an amazing mix of rock and hip-hop, of idealism and realism, and of angry political commentary and hope. Front to back, the album was both an amazing success both musically and in conveying it’s message. The album had better sales than any of the band’s previous efforts, although it still wasn’t a mainstream success. What it did do is lay the groundwork for the band to build off of. Franti got heavily involved in politics, including actively campaigning for Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign. The band continued to tour non-stop, including dates at major festivals.

The band returned to the studio to record 2008’s All Rebel Rockers, an album that was significantly more hip-hop and reggae influenced than Yell Fire! The band brought in the production team Sly and Robbie for the album, as well as a variety of guest vocals. The album’s sales were initially solid, and on the same level asYell Fire! In 2009, the band released their first single from an album since 2003’s “Everyone Deserve’s Music” with “Say Hey (I Love You).” The song was started a slow rise until it eventually peaked at #18 on Billboard, and the success of the single brought plenty of sales for All Rebel Rockers as well.

The success of “Say Hey (I Love You)” and All Rebel Rockers led the band’s fanbase growing very quickly. The song became a regular track in dance clubs and on pop radio stations, as well as in movies. The band went from playing small clubs to large theaters, and got much higher billing at festivals. That didn’t change the band’s message, however. They continued to highlight political issues in concert both through their songs and through speakers, booths at concerts, and other opportunities.

In early 2010, the band went out on the road with John Mayer to open a string of arena shows. During this tour the band would often play free acoustic sets outside of the arena early in the day before playing their opening set. They were also writing and recording a new album, and would often debut brand-new songs on tour that had been put together just hours before. The result of this process was The Sound of Sunshine. This album differed from previous Franti efforts in that it focused almost completely on the positive. The protest songs were put on the back burner, and it’s an album that is certainly derivative of “Say Hey (I Love You)”.

The band spent the next three years on the road, promoting the new album and constantly writing new music. They released their follow up, All People in 2013 to moderate but consistent mainstream success. The album appealed to those looking for fun music to dance to no matter what age. In 2016 the band released Soulrocker. This album showed some more movement by Franti, including new electronic elements and a move away from the overly-pop polished sound of the previous few albums. A little more of a reggae groove made an reemergence on the album as well.

In the end, the story of Michael Franti & Spearhead is not one that would normally have ended with mainstream success, and I believe that the story with this band is far from over. They’ve had both commercial and critical success, and they’ve continued to tour to keep up their momentum. Franti himself continues to speak his mind politically and put his beliefs into his music. It’s always exciting to see an artist finally get their due, and Franti has put the work in that has been paying dividends for the past few years.

Mountain Jam adds to lineup
Mountain Jam rounded out their 2017 lineup with some excellent acts. The String Cheese Incident tops the list of new additions. They’ll be joined by Amy Helm, The Head & The Heart, Matisyahu, and already announced artists like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and The Steve Miller Band.

Electric Forest adds to both weekends
Electric Forest announced additions to both weekends. These additions include The Revivalists, Kamasi Washington, EOTO, Nahko & Medicine for the People, and the Bluegrass Generals.

Dispatch set to return
Dispatch will be kicking off their first tour in 5 years and are set to release an album this summer. The band will kick off their tour with a date at Red Rocks on June 16.

June 16 Morrison, CO—Red Rocks Amphitheatre
June 17 Telluride, CO—Telluride Bluegrass Festival
June 20 Austin, TX—Stubb’s
June 23 Charlotte, NC—CMCU Amphitheatre
June 24 Atlanta, GA—Chastain Park Amphitheatre
June 26 Louisville, KY—Iroquois Amphitheatre
June 27 Columbus, OH—Express Live!
June 28 Indianapolis, IN—Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn at White River
July 1 Chicago, IL—Northerly Island
July 2 Rochester Hills, MI—Meadow Brook
July 3 Cedar Rapids, IA—McGrath Amphitheatre
July 6 Forest Hills, NY—Forest Hills Stadium
July 7 Columbia, MD—Merriweather Post Pavilion
July 8 Mansfield, MA—Levitate Festival
July 9 Philadelphia, PA—The Mann

Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds: Three Concerts On The Beach
February 23-25
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Winter Wondergrass Colorado
February 26-27
Steamboat, CO
Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Elephant Revival, Infamous Stringdusters, Sam Bush Band, Fruition, Brothers Comatose, Steep Canyon Rangers, Billy Strings

Panic En La Playa
February 27-March 3
Hard Rock Hotel
Riviera Maya, Mexico
Widespread Panic, Orgone, Southern Soul Assembly, Playa All Stars

Winter Wondergrass California
March 31-April 2
Olympic Valley, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, The Infamous Stringdusters, Sam Bush Band, Hot Buttered Rum, Fruition

Wanee Festival
April 20-22
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
Bob Weir, Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio Band, Gov’t Mule, Leftover Salmon, Blackberry Smoke, Matisyahu, JJ Grey & Mofro

Sweetwater 420 Festival
April 21-23
Centennial Park
Atlanta, GA
Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio Band, Ween, moe., Lettuce, Slightly Stoopid, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Anders Osborne, Dark Star Orchestra, Twiddle

Summer Camp
May 25-28
Three Sisters Park
Chillicothe, IL
moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Trey Anastasio Band, Primus, Mike Gordon, EOTO, The Floozies, The Infamous Stringdusters, Keller Williams KWahtro, The Wood Brothers, TAUK, Twiddle, The Werks

May 25-28
Cumberland, MD
The Travelin’ McCoury’s featuring Dierks Bentley, Trey Anastasio Band, Gov’t Mule, Bela Fleck & Chris Thile, Leftover Salmon, The Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, Jeff Austin Band

Dark Star Jubilee
May 26-28
Legend Valley
Thornville, OH
Dark Star Orchestra (x3), Greensky Bluegrass, Hot Tuna (acoustic and electric), Keller Williams and KWhatro, Rumpke Mountain Boys

Revival Music Festival
May 26-28
Harmony Park
Geneva, MN
Galactic, Yonder Mountain String Band, Turkuaz, Antibalas, Big Something, The Hip Abduction, The Main Squeeze, Aqueous

Nelsonville Music Festival
June 1-4
Nelsonville, OH
Ween, Emmylou Harris, Rodriguez, Son Volt, Sara Watkins, Parquet Courts

Mountain Music Festival
June 1-3
Wonderland Mountain
New River Gorge, WV
Umphrey’s McGee, The Revivalists, Twiddle, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Big Something, Spiritual Rez, The Southern Belles

June 8-11
Manchester, TN
U2, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Weeknd, Big Gigantic, Greensky Bluegrass, Umphrey’s McGee, Turkuaz, Twiddle

4 Peaks Music Festival
June 15-18
Bend, OR
Moe., Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Poor Man’s Whiskey, Moonalice

Mountain Jam
June 16-18
Hunter Mountain, NY
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The String Cheese Incident, Steve Miller Band, Peter Frampton, Gary Clark Jr., Michael Franti & Spearhead, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Elephant Revival, Shovels & Rope, The Revivalists, The Infamous Stringdusters

Electric Forest I
June 22-25
Rothbury, MI
The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, My Morning Jacket, The Revivalists, Lotus, Big Gigantic, The Infamous Stringdusters, Lettuce, Matisyahu, The Motet

Electric Forest II
June 29-July 2
Rothbury, MI
The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, Lotus, Big Gigantic, Nahko & Medicine for the People, The Infamous Stringdusters, Lettuce, Matisyahu, The Motet

Friendly Gathering
June 29-July 1
Waitsfield, VT
Twiddle, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, Turkuaz, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Moon Hooch

High Sierra
June 29-July 2
Quincy, CA
Trey Anastasio Band, Ween, Galactic, Mike Gordon, Fruition

June 30-July 2
Turin, NY

Northwest String Summit
July 13-16
Horning’s Hideout
North Plains, OR
Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Del McCoury Band, JJ Grey & Mofro, Elephant Revival, Fruition, Turkuaz,

Levitate Music & Arts Fest
July 8-9
Marshfield, MA
Dispatch, Umphrey’s McGee, Ziggy Marley, Lake Street Drive, The Revivalists, Twiddle, JJ Grey & Mofro, Rubblebucket

Deep Roots Mountain Revival
July 20-22
Marvins Mountaintop
Masontown, WV
Brandi Carlile, Lettuce, Yonder Mountain String Band, Dr. Dog, The Motet, JJ Grey & Mofro, Moon Taxi, White Denim, TAUK

Floydfest 17: Freedom
July 26-30
Floyd, VA
Michael Franti & Spearhead, St. Paul & Broken Bones, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Shovels & Rope, Turkuaz, TUAK, Fruition

August 24-27
Arrington, VA
The Avett Brothers, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic, The String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee, moe, Greensky Bluegrass, John Butler Trio, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, TAUK

Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be back next week with more jam. Until then, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute concert announcements. Until next week, Jam On!