It’s a beautiful, 80 degree day in Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadow, a fitting tribute from Mother Nature for Michael Franti & Spearhead’s 10th annual Power to the Peaceful Festival. Good vibes abound, with giant dreamcatchers and huge Tibetan prayer flags adorning each side of the stage. There’s a massive crowd on hand and it’s kind of amazing to realize how far this festival has come in the past decade.
Back in the early years, the free festival took place across town in the smaller Dolores Park where it peaked out with maybe 10,000 people in 2001. One could sense, though, that the band’s socially conscious message and groovy sound were breaking through to a wider audience. Stay Human, Spearhead’s landmark concept album from that same year, was a creative breakthrough in its blend of groove-oriented music with thought-provoking lyrics on topics such as the injustices of the death penalty, the drug war, the corporate takeover of the media, and other pressing social matters.
Franti’s frequent guest appearances around town with compadres like the String Cheese Incident, Bob Weir, and Trey Anastasio continued to build Spearhead’s profile. In 2002, the growing festival was moved to its current location and drew around 20,000. Now—three albums and six years later—the throng that packs the sunny meadow looks like at least 50,000. Local radio station KPFA is simulcasting the event and goes out on a limb, reporting attendance at 70,000.
Regardless of the exact attendance figure, the power of the peaceful movement is clearly gaining strength. If the good people of humanity are able to come together and steer society toward a new age of peace and harmony that transcends the current dystopian chaos, historians of the future will surely note events like Power to the Peaceful for helping fuel the momentum for change. A growing audience is clearly hungry for music with substance and Franti has specialized in tunes offering inspiration that a better world is possible.
“The most important lesson I’ve learned is that we don’t have to choose sides,” says Franti at the festival press conference, regarding the planet’s ongoing conflicts. “We can be on the side of the peaceful.” Spreading the message is what the festival is all about. More than just an excuse to gather for a good time, the festival traditionally features information about a variety of socio-political causes that activists are either tabling for or speaking about.
“Are you an enemy combatant? According to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 you may be,” reads an informational card warning of the repercussions of an act signed into law by President Bush on October 17, 2006. “Goodbye America, hello Nazi Germany,” reads the other side as it pleads for activism to repeal the law. Another card from the California Clean Money Campaign lobbies for Californians to contact Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and urge him to sign the California Fair Elections Act, a bill sitting on the his desk that would create public financing for Secretary of State candidates in the Golden State. But to get on the 2010 ballot, Schwarzenegger must sign it.
The Energy Action Coalition lobbies for its Power Vote campaign, a non-partisan movement to engage voters to demand solutions to global warming such as wind and solar power, efficient buildings, and sustainable transportation. One can also find pamphlets from the Democratic World Federalists, which espouse a campaign to overcome the war syndrome by transforming the United Nations into “an effective global government appropriate to the needs of the world community of the 21st century.”
Then there are activists who take such lobbying into their own hands to try and deliver a message to those who might not find the time or inclination to check out the tables. As guitarist Warren Haynes of Government Mule and the Allman Brothers Band prepares to take the stage for a solo acoustic set, a huge black sign with white lettering is held up near the stage proclaiming “9/11 TRUTH NOW – 911truth.org.”
Haynes delivers some soul-stirring vibes with songs like “Beautifully Broken” and “Patchwork Quilt”, the latter written as an elegiac tribute to Jerry Garcia just after his untimely departure from the planet. Haynes also offers a deep cover of U2’s “One”, a song he’s made a staple of his acoustic repertoire. But the highlight of the set is his version of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic”, where Haynes’ gritty yet melodic vocal makes the song sound as if he wrote it.
Ziggy Marley is up next, continuing a family connection with San Francisco and Speedway Meadow—his brother Stephen opened for Bob Weir & Ratdog on a similarly sunny day at the Earthday 2007 show at the same site. Ziggy utilizes a solo acoustic sound, as opposed to the full band that his brother brought, but the effect is similar. Bob Marley’s classic songs retain a timely spiritual message that never seems to fade. Ziggy stirs the crowd early with “Redemption Song” and soon has the crowd singing along to a “higher vibration” chant. He later delivers a John Lennon-type of “Imagine” message with lyrics such as “Wake up to the realization / We are all one nation / We are one.”
After Marley’s set, Tibetan activist Namkha Gyatso Rinpoche delivers the keynote speech of the afternoon. He speaks of a hope that the energy of the festival can keep building so as to bring in the Dalai Lama himself as the keynote speaker in 2010 or 2011. After speaking a bit about the Tibetan struggle for human rights, Rinpoche asks the crowd to join him in a special prayer.
“This prayer is for the whole world, to find peace and especially all the countries where there is a lot of suffering, so those people can be free of suffering,” he says. “It’s been 50 years, trying to find a solution (in the Tibetan struggle vs. China)… Pray together with me… Now is the time to elect a new president in the USA. So please pray that this next president will bring peace… because if America’s president is good, he gives good to the whole world. If he brings trouble, he brings it to the whole world.”
There’s no doubt that the comments are referring to Barack Obama. You’d be hard pressed to find a single person in this crowd who intends to vote for John McCain, but the message still resonates on a deep level. This is a Saturday afternoon festival in Golden Gate Park however, so there are those who must be jabbed in the shoulder to stop yakking, put down their beer for a second, and join in on the collective Tibetan prayer opportunity.
The stage is now set for Michael Franti & Spearhead to rock the park with their patented mix of inspiring lyrics over highly danceable grooves that blend funk, soul, rock, hip-hop, and reggae. An early peak occurs during “Hey World (Remote Control Version)”, from the brand new All Rebel Rockers album. “I came here to rock / To smash the empire with my boom box,” sings Franti as he is joined by guest vocalist Lilla D’mone on some smooth harmonies.
Much of the set takes on a distinctly reggae flavor, which seems appropriate given both Ziggy Marley’s presence as well as the fact that All Rebel Rockers was recorded in Jamaica. Another crowd pleaser from the new album is “A Little Bit of Riddim”, a funky tune based around a blues-y guitar riff that recalls the vibe of the band’s 2001 call-to-arms “Rock the Nation”. Guitarist Dave Shul sports his ever-trusty purple Stratocaster as he and bassist Carl Young lock in on a tight groove that gets the crowd going. “Soundsystem” continues the dance party with the classic Spearhead sound—Franti rapping about “rebel music on the dance floor” over a big groove that mixes ‘70s funk with more modern hip-hop production values.
The show steams toward a big finish with “Yell Fire”, one of the band’s most rocking tunes. Shul pumps up the vibe on guitar with some big ringing chords, setting up Franti to lead the crowd in another call to arms— “Yell fire, yo yo yo, here it comes / Yell fire… revolution will come!” “I wanna see you jumping,” shouts Franti and the masses respond in kind, creating a massive output of energy. As the show comes to a close, there’s no doubt that the peaceful are feeling plenty empowered.
Later, the die-hard fans pack the Mezzanine downtown for the festival’s official after-show party. The Shamanic Cheerleaders fire up the crowd with a dazzling display that combines high-school cheerleader type of cheers with spiritually empowering messages.
Franti & Spearhead hit the stage shortly thereafter for another high-energy set that keeps the faithful dancing into the wee hours. Much of the afternoon’s set is repeated, but you can’t tell from the audience reaction. A notable exception in the set list is the inclusion of “Stay Human (All the Freaky People)”, where the energy peaks out with Franti singing “All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.” It’s a popular sentiment in San Francisco to be sure.