October 17, 2007

Frantastic: Peace, Love, & Spearhead

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“Guaranteed you’re going to end up hugging the person next to you,” is what I was told before seeing Michael Franti & Spearhead live at Ithaca State Theatre on October 4. After headlining the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival a few summers back, Michael Franti & Spearhead returned to deliver a high-energy, feel-good show well suited to the Ithaca crowd. A blur of tie dye and dreadlocks, the packed theatre radiated good vibes with everyone delightfully stoked for the show. With Franti’s reputation as a musician passionate about peace and social justice causes, there was no better crowd to experience Franti with than the politically aware Ithacans that surrounded me.
You know an opening band is good when the thought, “I wish (main act) would just come on already” does not cross your mind even once during their set. For this reason, Blue King Brown is definitely worth a mention. Hailing from Australia, the reggae, hip-hop ensemble sang of the importance of taking initiative to do your part in the world, preached through a megaphone to a backdrop of a welcoming reggae beat.
Michael Franti & Spearhead played a long two and a half hour set consisting of a series of climaxes, during which I thought, “This cannot get any better,” and then getting proved wrong soon after. Franti appeared on stage looking quite suave with dreads coiled under a fedora and donning a black jacket. But the dreads were quickly free swaying and the jacket thrown aside as Franti’s high-energy stage presence radiated and got the crowd jumping. I mean, if Franti’s waving his arms, you can’t help but wave in return.
With everyone in the blissful “your sweat is my sweat, and my sweat is your sweat, so let’s be friends” mindset, Franti mellowed down by playing an acoustic set. The strong anti-war message of Franti’s music was most evident now, as he sang his classic, “You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb it into peace.” He spoke of the injustice of the economic and political costs of war receiving most attention while the human costs of war were downplayed. Between songs expressing his strong anti-violence sentiments, Franti shared his first hand experiences in war ravaged communities in Baghdad. When Franti asked families what they do when bombs are falling from the sky, they replied, “All we can do is kneel together and pray.” Franti’s deep investment in anti-violence causes was echoed in this collage of first hand accounts of his time spent in the Middle East and song lyrics like, “No life’s worth more than any other.”
An unexpected collaboration between Franti, Yungchen Lhamo (famous as the “voice of Tibet”) and Natalie Pa’aPa’a (Blue King Brown) further highlighted this message of peace. Lhamo’s immaculate vocals contrasted beautifully with Franti’s grassroots feel and Pa’aPa’a on bongos. This unforgettable conglomeration of all good sounds was a perfect demonstration of the successes that come from Franti’s vision of celebrating our differences.
At this point in the night, my already desperate desire to make friends with every person in the crowd was further elevated by the song “Light Up Ya Lighter.” The theatre lights dimmed as Franti exclaimed, “Fire, fire, fire. Light up ya lighter,” and the dark over the audience was illuminated by tiny flames dotted through the crowd. Maybe it is because I am a naive believer in the “we should all just hug and be happy” dogma, but standing in darkness with dozens of lighters raised to bring the troops home was a surreal experience that made me hopeful that everything that Michael Franti just sang about may become reality soon enough.
Franti’s positive energy and enthusiasm maintained throughout the long set, and his ability to radiate that to the crowd was very impressive. When the initial hints of fatigue were felt from the crowd, Franti would yell, “Everyone jump!” and everyone was instantly reenergized and jumped without hesitation. To engage the audience when their feet are sore takes real skill, my friend.
Given the lyrics urging peace and an end to the war, it was no surprise to find myself swaying, arms interlocked, and trading sweat with my carefree neighbors during the encore. Judging by the massive grins on everyone’s faces, we were all experiencing that feeling that only comes after seeing a satisfying show: some mixture of utter exhaustion and being unbelievably high on life.