If you had a friend who had never heard Michael Franti, and by way of introduction you played him the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy record followed immediately by Live in Sydney and told him that the Darth Vader-voiced MC in both instances was the same dude, you would have to forgive said friend for assuming that you had recently been dropped on your head from an impressive height.
As a Disposable Hero (and throughout his earlier work with the Beatnigs), Franti was one angry mother shut-your-mouth. Adopted by white parents in the predominantly black area of Oakland, he’d developed a preternatural awareness of the fragile nature of his surroundings, and in his early years, discovered that it made him furious. As an MC, he was as comfortable — and gifted — spraying fire at issues about race, prejudice, the abuse of power and the state of society (“Television, Drug of the Nation”, “Socio-Genetic Experiment”) as he was at named targets like then-California governor Pete Wilson (the funky retouching of the Dead Kennedys’ “California Uber Alles”). The hulking noise behind him, provided by percussionist Ron Tse, provided a duly sinister counterpart to his fire-breathing rhymes, and the apocalyptic imagery on the cover didn’t make him any more huggable, but he was smart and callous and unforgiving and purpose-driven, good qualities required for one singly invested in the social contract.
But throughout the ’90s, time cooled Franti out, and in a good way. Stepping well outside the realm of topics generally associated with hip-hop (even the political kind), Franti and his band, Spearhead, turned to penning sympathetic tracks about the plight of those with AIDS (“Positive”) and those without a home (“Hole in the Bucket”).
As the years marched on, Franti’s sound grew more relaxed, even if his mind didn’t. By the time he got to 2003’s Everyone Deserves Music, Franti was ready and willing to try writing his own “What’s Going On” — Everyone Deserves Music was an inclusive, cathartic jam that was half-house party, half Sunday service, and all love. If his message remained potent, his sound was pure as morning, and the general vibe indicated that Franti knew that his work wasn’t done, but that he’d reached an emotional understanding with it. I believe it was either Kierkegaard or Yoda who said, “Anger leads to fear, and…” well, OK, the dialogue’s pretty insufferable, but the point is there — pure rage, righteous and warranted or not, can only carry your muse so far before it either eats you alive or makes you fantastically boring. The following summer’s acoustic set, “Songs From the Front Porch”, completed the circle — it was Franti, a guitar and not much else, removing the last masks from his songs and casting them in as natural a light as he could.
It’s that Franti who gets top billing in Live in Sydney, a CD/DVD combo that documents an October 2003 gig at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion. Warm, gregarious and quick with the dreadlock-toss, Franti deftly drives his band through an hour of rock ‘n’ soul (with a reggae twist), their focus not being on changing the world but making a small corner of it bounce for a minute. At least on this night, Franti is content with not having the answers — “I’m a soldier, but afraid sometimes to face that things that may block the sun from shining rays, and fill my life with shades of gray” he intones on “Pray For Rain” — provided he can maintain the energy required for the search.
There’s no shortage of energy on Live in Sydney, though. This is R&B in that organic, old-school sense. “Pray For Peace” sports a killer Latin breakdown, “Rock the Nation” bobs and weaves over loose James Brown guitars and “What I Be” and “Never Too Late” are purely soulful, acoustic-based funk. And the sweetly meandering “Stay Human” shows him at his most relaxed, assured and approachable. Taken as a whole, it’s a big, cathartic party/church service — at one point, he stops the show cold to let a game audience member furnish a little six-string. So maybe he is huggable after all. “I wanna show you something beautiful!” he shouts midway through “Sydney,” indicating that he knows now that only beauty can kill the beast.