When Michael Franti fronted the socially-conscious Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in the early Nineties, sparks would literally fly on stage. Putting a grinder to metal, Franti's sidekick Rono Tse would mix hip-hop beats with flashes of fire. Tonight we were faced with a more traditional band set up in the form of Spearhead, but Franti's flame is still burning bright.
While age may have mellowed Franti's delivery, his political stance is unchanged. From the first track off his new album Everyone Deserves Music, it's apparent that he's out to save our souls and trees. Franti appears in baggy cargo pants with his dreads coiled inside his cap. On his right is Mr Radioactive - a sprightly rapper who jumps and whoops throughout the mammoth two-and-a-half-hour gig, but none the less remains dwarfed by Franti, barefoot and 6ft 6ins.
The evening becomes a lengthened rendition of the new album with a peppering of 2001's Stay Human. Sadly, the Hiphoprisy classic "Television, the Drug of the Nation" and the Spearhead hit "Hole in the Bucket" are absent. When he does play hits, Franti opts for bizarre blasts of "Billie Jean", The Sound of Music, Bob Marley-isms and Nirvana.
Reggae looms large, from the Sly and Robbie-produced new album to Franti's red, black and green sweatband and the Jamaican flag strung in front of the keyboards. Radioactive easily accommodates Sean Paul-style dancehall gruffness on "Pray For Grace" and phenomenal beatboxing. Hissing like a baby snake, he plays the pan pipes and beatboxes at the same time. It's an acoustic and unpretentious experience, a move away from Franti's hip- hop roots and an antidote to bling. However, Franti does have a tendency to veer into jazz-funk noodling, making the audience nod their heads to bass solos.
The single "Everyone Deserves Music" comes late, Franti's soulful vocals exorcising demons about his alcoholic father. Sincerity like this can jar, but he sweeps us along with a Tigger-like buoyancy. Constantly on the move, Franti does yoga-like movements, puts his arm round Radioactive, waves and points at the crowd in the upper tiers of the old theatre.
The audience are charmed and respond by jumping up and down when he asks them to. Springsteen-like, he plucks a girl from the audience and dances with her. At one point, Franti does a hilarious impression of the Queen being angry with George Bush for dropping his helicopter in her garden. Rapidly he converts the humour into politics. "How do the people of Iraq and Afghanistan feel about having Bush's helicopter in their gardens?" he asks.
We have to wait until the encore for Franti's response to September 11, "Bomb The World", with its "We can bomb the world to pieces but we can't bomb it to peace" catchphrase. Watching him rant, you can see why the loopy reggae visionary Lee Scratch Perry asked Franti to take part in his Meltdown Festival at London's South Bank centre in June.
After an evening spent basking in San Franciscan positivity and being charmed by his polemic, it's hard to separate the music and the politics. Franti is a charismatic frontman: even without the gems from his musical youth, Michael Franti live is a nigh-religious experience.Reuse content