Taken from The Music Box (December 13, 2008)
Michael Franti & Spearhead - All Rebel Rockers (Album Review)
1 Star: Pitiful - 2 Stars: Listenable - 3 Stars: Respectable - 4 Stars: Excellent - 5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
by Douglas Heselgrave
Michael Franti has an unstoppable rebel spirit. Like Bono, Bob Marley, and Bruce Springsteen, he has the ability to create an intimate, shared sense of purpose for an audience, so much so that they leave his performances feeling empowered and optimistic. After a Spearhead show, the stress and problems of modern life don’t seem so insurmountable, and one is filled with hope as well as a belief that each individual is capable of making a difference in the world at large.
Unfortunately, Franti’s albums have never really lived up to the promise of his live shows. This has changed, however, with the release of All Rebel Rockers. To make the endeavor, Franti traveled to Jamaica with his band Spearhead to record with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the legendary drum-and-bass duo. Hearing the results, one only wishes that Franti had made this move much earlier in his career. With All Rebel Rockers, Franti finally has the kind of musical support that is worthy of the intensity of his spirited singing and lyrics.
Every song on All Rebel Rockers is a sonic treat. Although, during their 40 years in the music industry, Sly and Robbie have supported the likes of Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, there is nothing jaded or offhand about their contributions to All Rebel Rockers. On every cut, they played as if their lives depended on it. The variety and complexity of their beats and counter rhythms are unfailingly innovative, lyrical, and intense. In terms of sheer creativity, Dunbar’s percussive work is absolutely without equal, and the spontaneous, volcanic eruptions that Shakespeare coaxes from his bass could blow the roof off a house. These self-taught men have a jaw-dropping ability to improvise at lightening speed, and their accompaniments are so assured that they sound effortless. It is immediately obvious that they do not form an ordinary rhythm section. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call Sly and Robbie the "Miles Davis and John Coltrane" of reggae. Consequently, their pairing with Franti is a marriage made in heaven, one that also has been long overdue.
Franti never could be accused of being subtle. Like Billy Bragg, his politics are admirable, but his expressions are frequently obvious and heavy-handed. Although his heart is in the right place, his lyrics typically are so direct that they make people squirm. Yet, coupled with the propulsive rude-boy beats that are conjured by Sly and Robbie, Franti’s songs achieve the sorts of power and majesty that previously had eluded Spearhead. Tracks like Life in the City and Hey World (Remote Control) are so incendiary that listeners will want to run in the streets and start their own revolution.
All Rebel Rockers fulfills the promise of which Franti and his longstanding outfit Spearhead simply have skirted around the edges — until now. Finally, the group’s party music has found the expression and the sense of purpose that it has needed. If only Franti would go back to Jamaica to work with Sly and Robbie on updating his early hits...well, that would be something to shout about.