At this time last year, Michael Franti & Spearhead were about to roll into town for a penultimate slot at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. The band threw down a rousing Sunday evening twilight set just before Pearl Jam closed out the festival, making for a superb juxtaposition to close the weekend. It was clear that Spearhead’s unique mix of rock, reggae, funk, pop and hip-hop had become a very appreciated sonic flavor deep in the heart of Texas.
Now the band is back shortly before ACL to play Austin’s finest venue, Stubbs BBQ. The brutal summer heat is finally starting to wane and it’s a gorgeous night for songs from The Sound of Sunshine, the band’s new album that focuses on their signature feel-good vibe. It’s got a decidedly pop flavor, but as Franti relates during the show, he was particularly inspired to project positive vibes after suffering a life-threatening burst appendix last year.
The band opens with the anthemic title track from 2003’s Everyone Deserves Music, setting an uplifting and cathartic tone for the evening. Franti is a source of boundless energy from the beginning, taking the crowd along with him for the duration. “Love Don’t Wait”, from the new album, keeps the danceable upbeat sound going with a catchy acoustic chord progression, accented by some trippy whammy-pedal effects from long time lead guitarist Dave Schul and new guitarist J Bowman. There’s a kind vibration permeating the venue, as if it’s just one big gathering of friends.
“It’s rock ‘n’ roll with a whole lot of soul,” proclaims Franti to introduce “The Thing That Helps Get Me Through”. It’s another high energy jam where Franti starts to mix in some of his patented socially conscious observations, singing about how “It’s a crazy world / A mixed up world involving politics and the underworld”.
“Rude Boys Back in Town”, the opening track from 2008’s All Rebel Rockers, is another highlight with its deep reggae groove that gets the entire crowd swaying. It also makes the Red Stripe tallboys available at Stubbs’ bars taste oh so sweet. The band segues smoothly into UB40’s classic “Red Wine”, with longtime bassist Carl Young providing the vocals. Red lights bathe the crowd, which sings along joyously before the band moves back into “Rude Boys”.
Later, Spearhead’s own classic “East to the West”, from 2006’s Yell Fire, conjures another uplifting mood about how “One love people never gonna stop.” The line about “The Lorax, who speaks for the trees”, wins a big cheer, followed by an even bigger one when Franti declares that “Love is too big for just one nation and God is too big for just one religion”. The crowd is clapping along now and Schul rips a smoking hot guitar solo at the end to drive home the point about spiritual inclusion.
“Shake It” keeps the good vibes going, as Franti and backing vocalist Jolene Rust duet on the reggae-tinged groove. The catchy tune even inspires what looks like a three-year-old child to suddenly appear on the stage dancing to the infectious groove, later identified as Milo. “Everybody Ona Move” cranks the energy higher still, with everyone getting down and Young cranking up his bass to vibrate the entire place. “I like my bass loudie,” asserts Franti as Young’s low-end continues to vibrate before the band segues into a “Billie Jean” jam that deepens the groove further. Franti and crew have become masters at throwing in teases on classic tunes, which Franti does again on the tender “Sweet Little Lies”, ad-libbing the vocals into Steve Miller’s “The Joker”. The line about being a “midnight toker” receives a notable cheer.
The title track from The Sound of Sunshine comes across with less pop sheen and more energy here in the live setting, bolstering the song’s worthiness. The crowd is grooving once more and Schul rips a bluesy solo to pump it up higher. Franti introduces “Gloria” as a song he wrote after his ruptured appendix incident, and the lyrics emphasize the emotion of just being glad to be alive. Jolene Rust stars here with her own verse and harmonies that complement Franti in fabulous fashion. The melodramatic song takes on an almost church-like vibe toward the end, impressive in its emotional power.
The hymnal vibe serves as a great prelude to “Yell Fire”, the band’s incendiary rocker about the good people of Earth coming together to overcome society’s addictions and manifest a peaceful revolution to save the planet. “You never ever, ever make a deal with the devil”, Franti sings. “Yell fire / Revolution will come”. Schul and Bowman crank up the guitars in electrifying fashion on the perennial crowd pleaser. There’s nothing like this song on the new album, but it’s great to still hear such a tune in the live show. Another highlight from the new album occurs with “I’ll Be Waiting”, which bites the guitar riff from U2’s “Bad” for a great slice of arena rock grandeur. The crowd eats it up, as it almost seems like the riff was written for Franti.
A sample of the riff continues to play as the band exits the stage, keeping the energy going. During the encore, Franti relates a tale of how he stopped wearing shoes after visiting a third-world country where he was moved by how few kids had shoes. He notes that this coming April will be his ten year anniversary of deciding not to wear shoes anymore, in order to show solidarity with the downtrodden and raise awareness about the issue. He encourages the crowd to donate shoes to the Soles4Souls program:(see www.soles4souls.org/).
Franti then calls for kids, of whom there are many in the crowd, to come up on stage for the final song. The endearing Milo is the first to answer the call, followed by about ten more pre-teens. The band throws down a rousing version of their 2008 hit, “Say Hey (I Love You)”, with everyone reveling in one last blast of catchy feel good energy. During a breakdown in the middle, Franti gets the precocious Milo to provide the “I love you” lyric. The entire show has been an exercise in how music can not only help people feel good, but also to raise their consciousness about the world’s ills and feel empowered to go out and help change it.