Since 1986, Michael Franti has been making music with a social conscience -- from his industrial punk days in the Beatnigs to the hip-hop leaning Disposable Heroes to his current (and most commercially successful) project, Michael Franti & Spearhead, which has been going strong since 1994. I've seen Franti a handful of times in an array of venues, and although Saturday night's show at Red Rocks might not be my favorite, there's no denying his energy was through the roof.
Before Franti took the stage, we were treated to a set by Brett Dennen, whose voice is like a cross between Ray LaMontange and James Blunt. He began with the ballad "Ain't Gonna Lose You," leading in with soft drums and soaring, dreamy guitar and bass.
Dennen's an expressive guitar player, all flailing limbs and awkward dance moves, and he took some pages from Franti's book in terms of incorporating local terminology into his songs and encouraging audience participation. This was our first glimpse of his effort, when he changed his lyrics to sing, "I will sing it from Red Rocks/I will sing it in the street when I'm drunk to a cop." Sweet.
Next, he slid into "San Francisco" while stating how much he loves Red Rocks. "This is the greatest place in the world," he declared, before launching into "Blessed," which sounds heavily Rusted Root-influenced to my ears, and then "She's Mine," which put me in mind of Jason Mraz. He played "The Comeback Kid," "Don't Forget," "Queen of the Westside" (dedicated to "all the ladies" and with firm, porno-style bom-chicka-wow-wow guitar lines), "Darlin' Do Not Fear" and "There Is So Much More" (the audience loved the line about the woman who lives in Colorado).
Dennen threw down a solid set, and when used to their full effect, the bass and keyboards carry his sound. He wasn't terrible, but he also wasn't particularly original or memorable for me -- the music he played wasn't singular or signature enough for my taste. Still, it was a good effort, and perhaps with a few more years under his belt, he'll pinpoint what Brett Dennen sounds like instead of imitating any number of indie-rock acts.
Franti and Spearhead took the stage while the strains of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" boomed over the speakers. He opened with "I Know I'm Not Alone," one of his more popular efforts that features soaring guitar and is designed to raise the energy level wherever he is -- and it worked well; the crowd went nuts as soon as Franti started playing.
He then moved into "Love Don't Wait for Nobody," strumming rhythm on his acoustic guitar while the electric guitar (played by Dave Shul) wove itself into a wailing jam. Although I am not a fan of jam bands at all, I don't mind Franti and Spearhead's improvisational journeys -- they keep the jams relatively short and relatively tight, allowing the musicians time to riff without the sound becoming hopelessly self-indulgent.
The group lowered the energy level just a notch with "The Rude Boys Back in Town," and during the stanzas in which Franti lists the countries and places he's visited (Red Rocks made a cameo appearance, of course, to the delight of the crowd). Franti exhibited his deep, singsong dancehall growl for this one, showing his range -- he can sing a sweet love song as easily as he flows when he's doing the hip-hop MC thing.
He exhibited his MC skills in "Hello Bonjour," always a crowd favorite with its powerful social-justice lyrics, steady rhyming and chorus constructed for audience participation. Then it was time for "Shake It," a new song, and Franti brought some audience members up on stage for this one -- including a gentleman in a wheelchair, who somehow took a spill and left the crowd agonized for the minute or so it took them to rectify the situation. Franti demanded a dancing security guard on stage with the audience members, and sure enough, one complied.
A stagehand brought out a giant balloon that popped, and over the crowd's groans of disappointment. "That's all right," Franti reassured. "We don't cry about popped balloons," and then played "Everyone Deserves Music," the title track off his 2003 album, a song I don't think is his strongest effort -- but the magic of Michael Franti is best seen live. He's one of those artists to which the studio does little justice; you really have to watch him play and feel his energy to appreciate his talent. Franti threw a couple of beach balls out to the audience during the song before Carl Young went into a frenzied bass jam and Franti picked up a tambourine to accompany him.
They kept the tempo up with "Everybody Ona Move," which the group cut in with bits and pieces of the late Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." Raleigh J. Neal, II on keyboards kept the synth noises dropping in appropriately, and Michael Franti did a (barefoot) moonwalk across the Red Rocks stage.
Then it was time to lower the energy; Franti told us about rupturing his appendix last year and his emergency surgery and how glad he was to be able to come to Red Rocks and play a show before offering up the slow, simple and melancholy "Hey World (Don't Give Up)." The group brought the song to a crashing crescendo before paring back down to just Franti's acoustic guitar and voice, then building again, then paring back down.
Next up was "Never Too Late," one of my personal favorites, a simple and upbeat ballad that was embellished, sped-up and funky in this version, including tropical sounds plunking from the keyboards and another Colorado reference dropped into the lyrics, but the group brought the song to a close with a slow, simple final stanza. Then drummer Manas Itiene took his place behind a djembe while Neal grabbed a tamborine and a merlotica for "Sometimes," merging gorgeous guitar lines into a wicked djembe solo.
Then it was time for "Sound of Sunshine," also the title of his tour and his upcoming album (to be released in September); it's already gotten some radio play and will probably be just as big a hit as his biggest hit to date, "Say Hey (I Love You)". More giant balloons were brought on stage -- yellow, this time -- and released into the crowd. This was certainly one of the highlights of the night; Franti's at his best when playing happy, upbeat tunes (or sadder ballad-style songs).
The group merged into "Yell Fire," another crowd-pleaser, and Franti pulled a young girl out of the crowd who energetically pretended to play the opening riffs of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," sort of like air guitar but with an actual guitar instead of an imaginary one. Franti likes to move around in the crowd, and he was doing just that, making his way up to a red brick ledge on the left-hand side of the stage, about halfway up the audience seating.
He explained to us his own concert etiquette while he stood there: He always intends to get there early, "like these people," he explained, and gestured toward the front half of the crowd. But then he finds other things to do -- like eat dinner and hang out with friends -- so he inevitably ends up "like these people," gesturing toward the back of the crowd.
So the next song was for the people at the back of the crowd, a song about tenacity, he said. "Anyone here had a rough week?" he asked. "Let it all go!" Then he cued up "Hey Hey Hey" and continued his journey through the crowd, finally wrapping up the song when he returned to the stage.
They played "I'll Be Waiting" off the upcoming album, slowing things down a notch and bringing in some power-ballad guitar before taking a break that lasted not quite as long as Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," which was played throughout the amphitheater until Franti and Spearhead were ready to come back.
Next was "Yes I Will," with fast and playful guitar and a joyous energy, blending in riffs of Bob Marley's "Soul Shakedown Party." They slowed it down again with "I Got Love For You," uplifted by the soaring guitar lines and furious drumming.
And then the show was over, after two hours of solid tunes from Franti and Spearhead -- but first, they played "Say Hey (I Love You)", bringing more audience members on stage to dance (one little girl even got the chance to sing a stanza into the microphone). Neal brought in jazzy, bluesy riffs after Shul's frenzied guitar solo, and before they finished the tune, Franti wanted to share one last story.
The summary: He met a CU football player who told him that the CU coach uses Michael Franti's words to inspire the team in the locker room. This, of course, made Franti think of linemen facing off against each other in a football game, looking into each other's eyes and saying, "I love you."
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Franti and Spearhead continued to exhibit their talent in playing with the energies of a song during this closing piece, simplifying the sound down to just guitar and voice, then adding in instruments until it builds to a crescendo, then paring it back down again, repeating the cycle -- but it never gets old, and it's always fun to listen to the masters tweak their craft.
Franti and company brought the night to a close with a crashing finale worthy of a Broadway play before the strains of Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved" filled the amphitheater, and it was time for the night to end.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I always enjoy Franti's positive energy and socially conscious music; he's especially strong live. His top performance that I've seen so far was at the Mile High Music Festival in 2008, but last night's Red Rocks appearance was a strong effort and a lot of fun. Random Detail: At intermission, the Love Hope Strength foundation presented prayer flags that will be carried around the world to raise funds to fight cancer. The prayer flags were carried from the top of the amphitheater to the bottom and hung from the rafters, so Michael Franti and Spearhead played their set under the colorful banners. By the Way: What is up with people not understanding the deal with general-admission seating at Red Rocks? I saw quite a few attendees who didn't realize the seat assignments are merely for ticket-counting purchases (which is explained very clearly on the amphitheater website) and were feeling quite put out that "their" seats were taken (including one girl who wanted me to move and seemed a bit miffed when I snickered and asked if she'd ever been to Red Rocks before). For the record, everyone: General admission means first-come, first-served seating; even Michael Franti knows that. You are not entitled to the seat number on your ticket. Calm the fuck down and stow the aggro -- especially at Michael Franti. Just show up earlier if you want a better seat. Sheesh.