Taken from Santa Cruz Guide (June 20, 2001)
Rockin' The Nation
Spearhead at Palookaville
by Chris Polson
The Low Down:
Our Rating: Venue: /5
----------"The death penalty is at the core of what it is to be
----------human. To be alive, to be dead. To give life or to
----------end it. The truth is always there when we need it."
----------Michael Franti of Spearhead, from the album Stay Human
Political messages have never been easy subjects to cover in songs. Love, money, sex, fun and partying encompass subjects that lead to a range of feelings that people yearn for. And why not? In the gears of the daily grind, most people want to grease the cogs with some upbeat music about things they can relate to, understand and sing along with. If the listener does desire some kind of message in their music, the search for that same upbeat mood can be exhaustive. Often times the message is clouded in anger, depression and abstract lyrics all of which are arranged to assure people that they are not alone in their pain, whatever the source of their personal anguish may be.
So, how is it that Michael Franti and his band, Spearhead, can create an album centered on opposition to the death penalty and still manage to keep up a hope for a brighter day? This difficult balance is achieved through a mix of soulful music, challenging lyrics and a positive vibe. Their newest album, Stay Human, is only the tip of the political iceberg. Where a Spearhead album is soulful, their concert is spiritual and is possibly the most intense two hours anyone can experience in live music.
The crowd at Palookaville cheered as Michael Franti joined his band on the stage at Palookaville last Thursday evening. They opening the show with "Oh My God." This song, which also opens the new album, depicts many of the governmental hypocrisies found in American policies. On stage he spoke of their recent tour of Europe, relating the view of President Bush held by European leaders and the recent execution of Timothy McVeigh. Speaking out against the government on all issues, including capital punishment, is a reigning theme throughout all of Spearhead's music. Franti's lyrics leave no stone unturned, and his voice carries their meaning to the audience with a forceful intensity reminiscent of James Brown and Gil Scott Heron. "Positive" deals with the possibility of contracting HIV. "Of Course You Can" contrasts verses about a First World police state against the chorus of Third World spirituality and ideology. "Hole in the Bucket" confronts the issue of poverty through the thoughts of a man who has been asked for spare change.
However, Franti knows that hammering audiences with heavy lyrics alone can be draining. Reality can be a drag, which is why Spearhead uses the music to keep up a feeling of hope. At one point in the show Franti summed up the feeling in the room by explaining how "we like to feed off this positive energy in house so we can keep the vibe flowing." To access this vibe, their music draws inspiration from a multitude of styles like reggae, soul, funk, R&B, house, drum 'n' bass, and gospel. Each genre is brought together through the combined efforts of Franti on vocals, bassist Carl Young, guitarist Dave Schul, Robert Quintana on congas, Mana Itiene on drums and Kevin Choice on keyboards.
The show was kept incredibly fun and uplifting due to the overall playfulness of the band. The vocals were shared with Goapele supplying her beautiful voice and Radioactive adding his skills as a rapper and a human beatbox. Franti often gave the spotlight to his fellow musicians, thus rewarding the audience with spectacular solos and a few duels between instruments. One improvisational moment left only Radioactive to add vocal styling to Itiene's drumming and Dave Schul's wa-wa pedal riffs. The final song of the night, "Sometimes," ended the evening on a high note with the band adding elements from Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" while Radioactive sang the Sugarhill Gang classic "Rapper's Delight."
This kind of musical versatility is the key aspect of a Spearhead show. Changing between different styles, different moods and different tempos allowed Spearhead to keep the night's audience, and all audiences, moving to their music. While the album and its message are a testament to the problem of capital punishment, a Spearhead concert promotes that message by being a celebration of life. As Michael Franti put it in closing out the show, "Sometimes, I feel like I can do anything/Sometimes, I'm so alive."