Mayer who? Michael Franti and Spearhead turn arenas inside out

by Ryan Snyder

Jamaican vocalist Cherine Anderson joins Michael Franti and Spearhead onstage. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Despite existing favorably in the musical consciousness for more than 20 years, Michael Franti has seemed to be a permanent fixture on the fringes of conventional popularity. He flirts with breakout success every five years or so, but the vociferous political bent of the majority of his recordings have seemed to waylay any possibility of mainstream success. “Hole in the Bucket” enjoyed a cup of coffee on MTV back in 1994 when the band was simply called Spearhead and almost 10 years later, the uncharacteristically blithe “Everyone Deserves Music” would find it’s way into the advertising zeitgeist. Yet, Franti and his band are currently on possibly their biggest tour of their careers on the weight of their only Billboard Top 20 single, even if they are in support of John Mayer. As they played before more than 15,000 fans at the Greensboro Coliseum last Monday, however, it was clear that Mayer would have a tough act to follow.

From the moment that Franti came running out on stage, the energy in the cavernous coliseum was almost animal. It’s not uncommon to see this kind of response to Franti’s unrestrained stage presence at any of the outdoor festivals where he’s a regular, but to see it in front of an audience who was primarily there for an artist far outside of his own sphere of operations was something else. Familiarity was moot at this point, however, as Franti’s sun-drenched disposition was infectious. The lanky, six-foot-six Franti traipsed from one end of the stage to the other what seemed like a single breath during the line “a little bit of riddim make the world go round” on the pulsating opener “A Little Bit of Riddim.” For a photographer, he was particularly impossible to get a bead on. The incredible thing about Franti is, that even during the mellower numbers, the ferocity never once abates. He brings the same intense, free-loving vibes found at his outdoor shows to the indoor events, yet makes them feel virtually indistinguishable.

In the quest to ensure that the headliners stand out among their support, it’s rare these days that opening acts in the big arena shows get their own custom visuals. The giant, glowing backdrop of Franti’s hometown of San Francisco was a nice bit of eye candy that lent a grounded feel to the frontman’s fluidity. After the acoustic “Sound of Sunshine” Franti found himself spending more time in the audience serenading the little ones than he did onstage. He’s not afraid to make direct connections to the audience members, just like he wasn’t afraid of losing his sound by sprinting throughout the coliseum. You kind of got the feeling that he could have yelled his songs loud enough for everyone to hear over the din anyway.

Jamaican singer Cherine Anderson — who also guested on Franti’s latest All Rebel Rockers — sauntered onto the stage for the opening stanza, but was conspicuously absent after “Sound of Sunshine,” even though she’s featured heavily on the album cut of his hit “Say Hey (I Love You),” however. No matter, because the focus was on Franti the entire time, even when his young guitarist did his best to posture for the slobbering Mayer zealots saturating the crowd.

Surprisingly enough, Franti kept his most prominent feature — his waist-length dreads — capped off throughout most of the show. That is until close to the end when he doffed it to huge applause during the culmination of “I Got Love For You.”

Speaking of love, Franti sure espouses a lot of it these days. Of his incredible repertoire of protest and anti-war songs, only the brilliantly crafted “Yell Fire!” found its way into the set. Call it the Obama Effect, but Franti doesn’t seem nearly as pissed off as he was during the Bush years, and especially not as much as his punk days in the Beatnigs or his pure hip-hop era with the Disposable Heroes of Hyphoprisy. It’s a good fit for the 43-year old Franti, who’s now more keen to bring kids onstage to pretend to rock out on guitar or hit the sweet spot of “I just want to write a song about a boy and a girl” on “Say Hey (I Love You)” than he is to shout down the Bush administration. Hopefully, he’ll help others feel that way too.