Taken from The Bulletin (Aug 11, 2016)
Michael Franti & Spearhead back in Bend
‘Soulrocker’ brings positivity to Les Schwab for fifth year in a row
by Brian McElhiney / The Bulletin
Be on the lookout today for Michael Franti biking down the street. Or maybe sharing some yoga moves with fans. Or floating down the Deschutes River.
Bend favorites Michael Franti & Spearhead performed at Les Schwab Amphitheater 8/11/16. The band released its ninth album "Soulrocker" earlier this year.
Many musicians seem to like playing in Bend; Franti just loves Bend, period. In addition to playing the Les Schwab Amphitheater five years in a row counting tonight’s performance, Franti has conducted a “yoga and bike parade” in the city hours before his last three shows — something he plans to continue this year.
“It seems like there’s a lot of people in Bend who share a lot of the same love that I do, you know, caring about people and the planet and enjoying life to the fullest,” Franti said recently from a tour stop in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Especially doing outdoor sports, which is something that I really enjoy doing. So usually when I’m out there, if I can’t find a paddleboard, I’ll find an inner tube or an old piece of driftwood or something and get out on the river.”
Counting tonight’s show, Franti has performed at LSA a record seven times since the venue opened in 2001, according to venue manager Marney Smith. She also said he’s the only artist who, despite coming year after year, increases his ticket sales every time he comes.
“When he comes back, I will watch people who were dragged here by their Franti friends, and they leave fans,” Smith said. “It’s just something about the way he performs that makes people want that experience.”
Last year Franti came armed with a new single, “Once a Day,” a typically sunny plea for unity and peace inspired in part by his son’s diagnosis with a kidney disease in 2014. That song is now a part of Franti’s ninth album, “Soulrocker,” with longtime band Spearhead; the album will be given away as a free download to all ticket holders of the LSA show.
“What a soulrocker is, to me, is a person who lives from their heart and who has compassion for all, and who has a tenacious enthusiasm for music and for life and for the planet,” Franti said. “Right now there’s so much challenge and tension and division in the world. … Right now is a time when we need reasons for people to come together, and music is a great way of bringing people together and reminding us of our humanity.”
Over the years, Franti has dabbled in just about every style of popular music imaginable — from his early days in the late ’80s with San Francisco punk band The Beatnigs, through his time with hip-hop group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, to his now 22-year career with Spearhead. He admits to a certain amount of creative restlessness, musically and otherwise. Some of the many ongoing projects he mentioned during his conversation with GO! Magazine: building an addition to his house in San Francisco, working on a new T-shirt design and filming a music video (completed only days earlier while on the road).
But for Franti, there’s a clear through line linking his many musical and creative detours.
“I guess the main thing is that I make music for the same reason that I did back when I first started, which is that I care about people and the planet,” he said. “As an artist, I’m always trying to find new ways of saying that and find new ways that inspire me, and I guess I’m one of those really restless creative spirits.”
His early punk rock years helped shape this world view. The Beatnigs were signed to Alternative Tentacles, the San Francisco independent label founded by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, who offered some advice to the young Franti.
“One of the things that I remember Biafra saying probably about 15 years ago — I was doing a spoken word tour with him — he said, ‘Don’t just hate the media — become the media,’” Franti said. “And little did he know that we would all have social media, and that we would all have this voice to be broadcasting out to the world now. But I think one of things that was also a value of Biafra and Alternative Tentacles and the punk rock scene that I was in at that time, was that it wasn’t just enough to be out there saying whatever you wanted to say, and that bullying was not cool, and that being a troll online was not cool. It was that you had to have some thing that you were doing that was taking it to a positive place.”
“Soulrocker” brings that positivity, while continuing to push Franti’s music in new directions. He and the rest of Spearhead — guitarist J Bowman, bassist Carl Young, drummer Manas Itiene and keyboardist Michael Blankenship — experimented with electronic dance music textures throughout the record’s 13 songs, heard most notably on tracks such as “My Lord,” “Get Myself to Saturday” and “We Are All Earthlings.”
Franti said he’s always been a fan of electronic music. But his writing process is quite different, usually starting on acoustic guitar. On “Soulrocker,” he worked with producers Dwayne “Supa Dups” Chin-Quee and Stephen McGregor, son of reggae singer Freddie McGregor, who helped flesh out the sonic landscapes on Franti’s stripped-down ideas.
“My band before Spearhead, The Disposable Heroes, we did a lot of electronic music and sampler-based music,” Franti said. “When I started playing guitar, I really just started focusing on the melody more, and chord structure and stuff like that. Every song that we would write, I would always make sure that before we did anything to it, that it was something that I could just sing with the acoustic guitar. … And then we started adding these other elements to it.
“We never want to lose it entirely,” Franti added, “but the main thing for me is that a song has a great story to be told and has a great beat that people can move to.”
And often it’s a difficult story to tell. Franti recently re-released the music video for “Same as it Ever Was (It Starts Today),” originally released in 2014 as a reaction to police shootings across the country.
“It seems like every day there’s some new killing or some new attack in some part of the world,” Franti said. “I think that the tipping point is gonna be when people realize that it’s possible to condemn police violence and still appreciate police officers. I have a brother who’s a police officer, and I know that not all cops are bad, but when things happen that are bad, we have to call it what it is and people have to be accountable.
“… So much of what we see in the media is trying to divide us,” Franti continued. “You have to take one side or another, Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, or whatever. And we don’t have to do that. It’s possible to hold two ideas in our head, and compassion for all people in our hearts.”
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