Words and Photography By Alan Sheckter
“We can bomb Afghanistan and ISIS and a lot of places, but we can’t bomb the world into peace,” Michael Franti, perhaps the music biz’s greatest advocate for peace and social justice, said between songs at the El Rey Theatre in Chico on Nov. 18.
This and several other profound sound bites helped confirm that, in late 2014, no matter the state of the nation or the world, the kinetic Franti is still all at once optimistic, sensitive, and politically assertive, while delivering a unique mix of reggae, folk, pop, and light hip hop. Franti, playing acoustic guitars all night, turned the old Vaudeville house into a euphoric, jump-in-place rally, leading a trio including original Spearhead bass player Carl Young and current lead guitarist Jason Bowman. So much delirium ensued, in fact, that two stagehands were summoned to be stationed at the stage’s light supports to keep their bouncing and shaking to a minimum.
Sometimes seated and sometimes scampering around the stage on his always-bare feet, Franti strummed, rocked out, and reached out to the fervent crowd with his obligatory and well-received appeals of “Make some noise!” and “How You Feelin’?” Franti also spent plenty of time showing his vulnerable side, discussing song origins and even getting emotional while talking about, among other things, his eldest son (who was in attendance), his mother’s incredible support and guidance, and his father’s conquering of alcohol addiction. He also talked of having an infatuation with Chico ever since he played on the Davis High School basketball team and the bus brought them up to play Chico High.
A common thread throughout the 48-year-old’s career since his days with the Beatnigs (late 1980s), The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (early ‘80s) and Spearhead (20 years and counting) is Franti’s uncanny knack for vocalizing profound ideas and ideals that look outside of one country and one religion, but instead speak of the common ground that connects all seven billion of us Earth dwellers.
Franti’s messages of inclusion were never more apparent than during “Life is Better With You,” when he pointed out several audience members individually, and declaring to “the person in the tie dye in the second row,” or “the guy in the white shirt over there,” or “the person waving his arms back there,” that “Life is Better With You.”
A fun and engaging experience throughout, the three and a half hour event included several interesting components. Franti’s oldest son, Cappy, greeted concertgoers before they even walked into the show, supplying Sharpies and three-inch squares of colored paper, and welcoming everyone to share a sentiment. The messages quickly filled an outside door and posts from earlier stops on the tour created the stage backdrop.
Even a flood in the only women’s restroom that prompted one kind staffer to be stationed there with a Shop Vac in an effort to stem the flood, didn’t seem to dampen the overall mood.
Rising singer/songwriter Ethan Tucker opened the show, performing for an appreciative crowd, many of whom were already fans. Tucker later joined Franti and friends for a spirited treatment of “Say Hey.” Cherisha Heart Giacoma, a Nevada County foothills singer/guitarist, dazzled the crowd with her skills and poise when she joined Franti for a strong version of his 2010 hit “Sound of Sunshine.” At the conclusion of the set, Bowman took his place behind two turntables and a Mac, and presided over a post-show DJ Dance Party as Franti gravitated to the lobby to mingle, pose, and autograph.
In addition to tunes mentioned earlier the show also included such favorites as “I’m Alive,” “Closer to You,” “11:59,” and “Ganja Babe,” which was paired with a Springsteen-reverent version of “I’m on Fire.”
Franti delivered the final number, the not-yet-recorded “Once a Day,” while moving about the entire audience while receiving accolades, back slaps, and embraces as he strummed and sang “Everybody ought to hug somebody… at least once a day. Everybody needs to kiss somebody… to love somebody at least once a day.”
Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.