music / Columns

Jam Central Station: Michael Franti

April 6, 2019 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski

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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 2018, Franti released Stay Human Vol. II alongside a documentary, also entitled Stay Human. The documentary focused on Franti’s work and travels as well as the stories of many people he met along the way. The album didn’t make any commercial waves but the documentary received mostly positive reviews. The combination of the two showed Franti’s continued commitment to bringing positivity into the world through his art, whatever form that might take.

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. Franti continues to garner enough support to make his music and reach a large audience. As he continues to branch out into new areas it’s easy to see why he’s been around so long.

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Lineup announced for moe.down
The lineup for this year’s moe.down festival was announced this week. Along with 3 full nights of moe., the festival will include the Drive By Truckers, Spafford, God Street Wine, Everyone Orchestra, Floodwoods, and many others.

The Werks announce Werk Out X Lineup
The tenth annual Werk Out festival will take place at Legend Valley from August 1-3. The Werks will perform all three nights. They’ll be joined by Big Gigantic, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, The Floozies, Twiddle, Matisyahu, Turkuaz, and many others. Look for some great collaborations to come from this one.

Borderland Festival announces lineup
The Borderland Festival in New York announced their 2019 lineup. The festival will take place from September 21-22 and will feature Greensky Bluegrass, Gov’t Mule, Shakey Graves, Mavis Staples, The Wood Brothers, The Infamous Stringdusters, Keller Williams Grateful Grass, Rayland Baxter, and many others.

jcsevents

Bender Jamboree
April 11-14
Plaza Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas, NV
Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Billy Strings

Sweetwater 420 Festival
April 19-21
Centennial Olympic Park
Atlanta, GA
Widespread Panic, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Rebelution, Moon Taxi, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, Turkuaz

Domefest
May 16-18
Marvin’s Mountaintop
Masontown, WV
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong (x5), Aqueous, Litz, Mungion, Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers

DelFest
May 23-26
Cumberland, MD
The Del McCoury Band, The String Cheese Incident, The Travelin’ McCourys, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Marcus King Band, Billy Strings

Summer Camp Music Festival
May 23-26
Three Sisters Park
Chillicothe, IL
moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Big Gigantic, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Trampled by Turtles, Blues Traveler, Lotus, TAUK, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Spafford, ALO

Dark Star Jubilee
May 24-26
Legend Valley
Thornville, OH
3 nights of Dark Star Orchestra, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Leftover Salmon, Billy Strings, Dumpstaphunk, The Lil’ Smokies, Donna the Buffalo, The Nth Power

Camp Greensky
June 6-8
Wellston, MI
Greensky Bluegrass (3 nights), Del & Dawg, Stephen Marley, Billy Strings, Hiss Golden Messenger, Circles around the Sun, Ghost Light, The Rebirth Brass Band, Bombino

Bonnaroo
June 13-16
Manchester, TN
Phish, The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, GRiZ, Nahko & Medicine for the People, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Jim James, Trampled By Turtles, The Wood Brothers, Shovels & Rope, The Record Company

Mountain Jam
June 13-16
Bethel Woods
Bethel, NY
Willie Nelson & Family, Phil Lesh & Friends, Gov’t Mule, The Avett Brothers, The Revivalists, Twiddle, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Dispatch, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Michael Franti & Spearhead

Keller in the Caverns
June 21-23
Pelham, TN
2 Keller Williams performances as well as Pettygrass, More Than A Little, and a Grateful Gospel Brunch

Telluride Bluegrass Festival
June 20-23
Telluride, CO
Brandi Carlisle, Sam Bush Band, Jim James, Greensky Bluegrass, Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon: Stories from the Living Room, Punch Brothers, Railroad Earth

Electric Forest
June 27-30
Double JJ Ranch & Resort
Rothbury, MI
3 nights of The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, Lettuce, The Floozies, TAUK, Spafford, Twiddle, Ghost Light, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Nth Power, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades

Smoky Run Music Festival
June 28-30
Butler, OH
Gov’t Mule, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, Deer Tick, Son Volt, The Travelin’ McCoury’s & Jeff Austin Band present Grateful Ball, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Rumpke Mountain Boys

moe.down
July 4-6
Snow Ridge Ski Resort
Turin, NY
moe., Drive By Truckers, Spafford, God Street Wine, Everyone Orchestra, Cory Wong, Max Creek

High Sierra
July 4-7
Quincy, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Umphrey’s McGee, Dispatch, Del McCoury Band, Jim James, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Galactic, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, TAUK, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, ALO, Marcus King Band

4848 Festival
July 11-13
Snowshoe Mountain
Snowshoe, WV
Greensky Bluegrass, Umphrey’s McGee, The Infamous Stringdusters, Lettuce, Railroad Earth, Marcus King Band, Billy Strings, Turkuaz, Fruition

Ride Festival
July 12-14
Telluride, CO
Widespread Panic, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Big Something

Camp Bisco
July 18-20
Montage Mountain
Scranton, PA

FloydFest 19 “Journey Home”
July 24-28
Floyd, VA
Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band, The String Cheese Incident, Brandi Carlile Tyler Childers, Margo Price, Fantastic Negrito, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grace featuring Love Cannon

Peach Music Festival
July 25-28
Montage Mountain
Scranton, PA
Phil Lesh & Friends, Trey Anastasio Band, The String Cheese Incident, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, moe., Greensky Bluegrass, Lotus, Lettuce, Infamous Stringdusters, Yonder Mountain String Band, Allman Betts Band, Billy Strings

Werk Out
August 1-3
Legend Valley
Thornville, OH
The Werks, Big Gigantic, Claypool Lennon Delirium, The Floozies, Twiddle, Matisyahu, Turkuaz, Melvin Seals & JGB

Woodstock 50
August 16-18
Watkins Glen, NY
Dead & Co., Santana, Robert Plant & The Sensational Shape Shifters, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlisle, Hot Tuna, Gary Clark Jr., John Fogerty, Margo Price, Marcus King Band.

Lockn’ Festival
August 22-25
Arrington, VA
Trey Anasasio Band w/ Derek Trucks, Tedeschi Trucks Band w/ Trey Anastasio, Bob Weir & Wolf Bros. w/ Susan Tedeschi, Otiel & Friends w/ Bob Weir, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, The Revivalists, Gary Clark Jr., Old Crow Medicine Show, moe., Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Twiddle

Borderlands Festival
September 21-22
Knox Farm State Park, NY
Greensky Bluegrass, Gov’t Mule, Shakey Graves, Mavis Staples, The Wood Brothers, The Infamous Stringdusters, Keller Williams Grateful Grass, Rayland Baxter

Jam Cruise
January 7-12
Miami, FL

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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!