Back in the mid- to latter 1990s when Michael Franti had shed the angry-young-manliness of his Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy periods, his politically charged, performance art mic-controlling of the more laidback early Spearhead period had taken a commercial dip in a bottom-line capitalist urban music industry. Spearhead’s air play was virtually limited to college radio and “open ear” markets free from major label intimidation, and its concert audiences comprised primarily Euro-Americans and some freethinking Africans in spite of Michael’s stated intent of the band reached an eclectic following with its message.
After a revolving door of core contributors to the band’s sound, some spoken word rediscovery in Frisco’s experimental club scene, and a new creative lease on life as a straight independent artist, the band now known as Michael Franti and Spearhead had mastered the fire and magic mere Spearhead groped toward for much of the past decade at a late night Metro gig Saturday that amounted to a future music concert that Michael’s group was the intermitting act for. The band appeared to have its work cut out for itself with a yuppie-to-never-wave crowd nearly as white as an Antarctic tundra (then again, Michael and Spearhead’s crowd have traditionally been those already down with his volkgeist, or people’s movement).
The band effortlessly dove and backstroked through its mostly uptempo soul rebirth set with shades of Marvin Gaye, gradually building up the crowd reaction from some beat-nailing head-bobbing, fingerpointing, palm-waving, and on knocked-out alligator to a liberating dancemania that eventually proved infectious with the initially resistant balcony. Michael was his most intimate with the crowd, conversationally dropping one-liners, bouncing his 6’ 2” reddish-olive lanky frame mutant stomper bare feet about the Metro stage to make rusty dread whip free on losing his cap, continually dancing a samba that at one point included a female fan who made an old college effort to match his ballroom moves. Aside from his conventional and ragga to spoken word mic-controlling and some crowd-pleasing with a handclapping and post-modern holy dancing for a sanctified beat a la “Jubilee Showcase,” the only missing from Michael’s more deeply folk-singing moments like “On My Mind” were the raised lighters a-blazing.
Despite the still somewhat mourned loss of Mary Harris as a core Spearhead vocalist, Goapele’s smoky but breezy chanteusing helped grease the fancy-free vibe Michael frontmanned. Massachusetts mic-controller Radio(active) displayed a mic-controlling and beatboxing that should make Rahzel even more insecure in his humanly acoustical throne. Those bass guitar licks from Gary, IN native Carl Young and acoustical-to-bass guitar links from a paler colleague proved lulling, and the ivory tickler was equally soothing in his duality with electric keyboard and synthesizer. Spearhead’s Nigerian drummer also proved that grrrl power can rule on the percussion end of a “fruit salad”—as in celebratory eclecticism over the assimilationist melting pot—band.
Speaking of fruit salads, the headlining act from Capetown, South Africa, Juno Reactor, put a stunning high-powered-roots-and-culture face on what would have otherwise been a monotonous set of trance and futuristic dance music. Joined by a their western-dressed white DJ alternatively on guitar and sampler, the brothers matched their aboriginal getup with indigenously African dance, chanting in their native language, tumbling, and a lush instrumentation of ranging from oversized bongo drums played with sticks and sort of framework castanets to antelope-horn flutes that set the crowd into a tribal delirium after the frenzy behind Spearhead’s set.
MARK FITZGERALD ARMSTRONG
11706 SOUTH THROOP STREET
CHICAGO, IL 60643