Taken from The Phoenix (April 11, 2002)
Live & On Record | Saul Williams & Michael Franti
by HUA HSU
"This is a concert, not a rally," joked opening act Saul Williams as he surveyed the left-leaning crowd at the Spearhead show a week ago Wednesday at the Paradise. Ten minutes in and the politically conscious poet had already managed to allude to the Enron scandal, protest President Bush's maneuvers in the Middle East, and remind the audience of Crispus Attucks, the former slave who was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre. "Tonight has to be done," he intoned heavily. "It's a ritual that has to be done, here, in the land of Crispus Attucks." Looking more like the checkout line at Bread and Circus than your typical hip-hoppers, the sellout crowd hung on every righteous word from the night's two charismatic raptivists, first Williams and then headliner Michael Franti and his hip-hop jam band Spearhead.
Although Williams's label has given his critically acclaimed debut, Amethyst Rock Star (American), the weakest of promotional pushes, the rabid response and repeated sing-along fill-ins during his hour-long set spoke to his dedicated cult following. The album and the live show are a stark sonic departure from the stripped-down slam poetry that Williams cut his teeth on in the mid '90s. Stalking the stage with his competent and occasionally showy band, he ran through raucous versions of album standouts like "La La," "Coded Language," and "1987," as well as covers of Bob Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and Radiohead's "Lucky." Although his screechy take on this last sent the kids into a frenzy, it also reminded one of the grating quality of his singing voice. When he cut to one of his more conventional rap cuts, "Penny for a Thought," it became clear that his delivery is at its best when it channels Rakim rather than Thom Yorke.
In contrast to Williams's fiery and occasionally didactic stage-as-pulpit performance, Franti and his four-piece band seemed to pander to the barefoot, pseudo-hippy hedonism of the liberal crowd. Their newest, Stay Human (Six Degrees), is another inoffensive blend of reggae, rock, funk, and hip-hop that, like the live show, gets by on Franti's estimable charisma. Breezing through cuts like the celebratory "Oh My God," the safe-sex parable "Positive," and an array of tasteful covers, the gaunt Franti stalked the stage with a seductive charm; by the end of Spearhead's two-hour set, he had the collegiate crowd worshipping him like the idols he was instructing them to destroy.