Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘reggae’

(Above: Thievery Corporation gets the whole room jumping by firing “Warning Shots.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Dance ensemble Thievery Corporation took fans around the world and through its considerable catalog during its inaugural performance in Kansas City on Wednesday night at the Midland.

Although Thievery Corporation functions as a duo in the studio, onstage CEOs Rob Garza (turntables and keyboards) and Eric Hilton (guitar) expanded the board to include a horn section, a full rhythm section and a division of vocalists. Boston MC Mr. Lif brought a hard energy to “Culture of Fear” while mid-Atlantic Rastafarians Ras Puma and Sleepy Wonder imported Jamaican riddims and patois to “Overstand” and “Amerimacka.” Nearly every singer was onstage jumping around during the powerful “Warning Shots.”Many of the best moments, however, belonged to the women. “Garden State” soundtrack staple “Lebanese Blonde” featured Natalia Clavier’s silver tongue paired with Hilton’s sitar. French singer LouLou delivered a spellbinding “La Femme Parallel” in her native tongue. LouLou also was featured in the most organic moment of the night, when Hilton and Garza strapped on six-strings for the ballad “Sweet Tides.”Despite the globetrotting nature of the night, many of the songs featured similar downtempo beats and relied on textures to keep them fresh. As the band moved through trance, bossa nova and dub, detours into reggae, hip-hop and dancehall were welcome. “Vampires,” an anti-International Money Fund screed set to Afro-Beat, was especially energetic. I’m not sure whether the political message got through, but it was hard to find anyone not dancing.

The small crowd fit comfortably on the first three tiers of the Midland floor. The engaged crowd made the most of the ample space, letting the music inspire large, sweeping dances with plenty of room to move around. With no backdrop and a basic light show, Thievery Corporation relied on its music to inspire the audience, and it definitely worked. The constant movements seemed to close in the cavernous room and make it feel more full and energetic.

With the band and audience in complete simpatico, it seemed a little soon when the musicians called it a night after nearly two hours. It felt as though the spell could have lasted all night, especially given how long many fans had waited. It took 15 years and seven albums for the band to finally find Kansas City. Hopefully it won’t take that long for it to come back.

Setlist: “Web of Deception,” “Lebanese Blonde,” “Sol Tapado,” “Take My Soul,” “Liberation Front,” “Culture of Fear,” “Overstand,” “Radio Retaliation,” “Illumination,” “All That We Perceive,” “La Femme Parallel,” “Amerimacka,” “Vampires,” “The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter,” “Unified Tribes,” “Assault on Babylon,” “Warning Shots.” Encore: “Sweet Tides,” “The Richest Man in Babylon,” “Coming from the Top.”

Keep reading:

Review: Metric

Review: Del tha Funkee Homosapien

Review: Girl Talk

Read Full Post »

(Above: Reggae pioneers the Skatalites pay tribute to Dave Brubeck, and prove that it is possible to skank to jazz.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The original run of the Skatalites lasted barely over a year. That brief window has proved to be more than enough time to build a legacy strong to survive nearly half a century later.

The music the seven-piece island band played for two hours at Davey’s Uptown Rambler’s Club on Thursday night transformed the sound of Jamaican music, but has deep tentacles into many forms of American music, including jazz, doo wop, R&B, gospel and even country.

The band never tried to hide its influences. “Music is My Occupation” reappropriated the horn line from “Ring of Fire.” Next, on their version of the James Bond theme, the famous surf guitar was transferred to a punchy horn line. The arrangement inspired more dancing than danger. Think of it as the soundtrack to the scene after the big fight, when 007 waltzes away with the girl.

Three horns lined the front of the stage, proclaiming the band’s strength. Founding member Lester Sterling played an old saxophone that looked like it had been rescued from a shipwreck but never failed to summon a melody pure and true. The big rhythm section included keyboards and guitar. They players may have been hidden behind the brass, but never played second fiddle.

The band had no problem moving the tricky 5/4 time of Dave Brubeck’s signature “Take Five” to a ska beat. Originally recorded with Val Bennett as “The Russians are Coming,” the piece featured Sterling’s longest solo of the night and proved he could hang with the players in the Blue Room any night.

When Sterling wanted to show off ska’s versatility, he launched the band into a cover of “I Should Have Known Better.” The Beatles were contemporaries when the Skatalties first laid down their version. A cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” – courtesy of drummer Trevor Thompson – and the spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved” were the night’s only vocal moments.

The two-hour set was generous to a fault. While the room was packed for the first hour, there was plenty of elbow room when “The Guns of Navarone,” the band’s biggest song, finally emerged near the end. Most of the instrumentals employed a similar arrangement, allowing some sameness to eventually creep. The performances were always energetic, however, and kept a steady flow of dancing near the stage.

Purists can quibble over the lack of original members onstage and they’d have a point. Sterling is the only founding member, and almost half the band wasn’t born when the Skatalites were at their peak in Studio One. Blame Father Time for the attrition then ask if the music should be forced to pass along with its musicians.

Sterling put it another way between numbers: “When you’re good, you’re good.”

They’re good.

Keep reading:

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Review: Sly and Robbie

Police On My Back: Five Musicians Convicted of Murder

Read Full Post »

(Above: Jimmy Cliff did not perform his version of the Clash classic “Guns of Brixton” during his recent stop in Kansas City. To remedy this disappointment, here’s Cliff performing the song at Coachella.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Blame it on the babysitter.

Unable to find someone to watch his daughter, Joel Castillo took her to work with him on Friday night. The job happened to be opening for reggae legend Jimmy Cliff at Crossroads KC. When Castillo’s set with 77 Jefferson was over, he happily hoisted daughter Keilani, 4, onto his shoulders to take in the headliner.

Cliff had Keilani and the rest of the two-thirds-full venue right where he wanted them on opening number “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” Now 40 years old, “You Can Get It” helped break reggae to a worldwide audience at a time when Bob Marley was still struggling to get a major label deal.As Keilani clapped, threw up her hands and waved her arms, the rest of the crowd danced happily to Cliff’s relentlessly upbeat protest music.
Themes of creating peace and injustice permeated the evening, but the tight nine-piece band made calls of “no more war” seem more like party anthems than political statements.
The 100-minute set covered all of the 64-year-old Cliff’s catalog. Refusing to stand still, Cliff used a couple of his earliest songs as an excuse to teach old ska dance steps. Cliff’s gyrations during “Rub-A-Dub Partner” left little doubt to the song’s subject.A handful of new songs were sprinkled into the set, including a cover of Rancid’s “Ruby Soho” that Cliff made sound like an old original. “Vietnam” was updated to “Afghanistan” but sadly few other lyrics needed modification to be relevant.

Toward the end of an empowering cover of “I Can See Clearly Now” Cliff recited the first Pslam, showcasing the poetry in scripture. A sublime performance of “Sitting Here In Limbo” featuring Cliff on an upside-down Les Paul was another high point.

The main set ended with a hypnotic drum circle and “Bongo Man.” As the scarf tied around Cliff’s head flopped with every drum beat, the air took on the feeling of a prayer meeting. Although delivered well past Keilani’s bedtime it was a fitting lullaby.

Setlist: You Can Get It If You Really Want; Children’s Bread; Treat the Youths Right; Rub-A-Dub Partner; Wild World; Ruby Soho; Rebel Rebel; Vietnam; World Upside Down; King of Kings > Miss Jamaica; Sitting Here in Limbo; Let Your Yeah Be Yeah; I Can See Clearly Now (Psalm 1); Bongo Man. Encore 1: One More. Encore 2: The Harder They Come; Wonderful World, Beautiful People.

Keep reading:

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Nas and Damian Marley – “Distant Relatives”

Review: The Original Wailers

Read Full Post »

(Above: Michael Franti and Spearhead perform at the Electric Picnic Festival in Ireland.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Michael Franti and Spearhead were just starting their new song, “The Sound of Sunshine” when the first drops of rain appeared. By the guitar solo they were landing regularly. At the end it was obvious the rain wasn’t moving on.

The building storm intensified “Yell Fire,” the politically charged next number, but Franti was undeterred, worming his way through the crowd, getting wet with the masses that filled two-thirds of Crossroads to see him on a Sunday night. As Franti made his way back onstage he pulled some musicians from the crowd who lead an impromptu jam on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” When the song ended Franti’s voice could be heard, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Michael Franti spent nearly as much time in the crowd as he did onstage. (Photo by Travis Beye.)

“Those of you in front, turn around,” Franti’s voice boomed, and there he was, standing on something in the middle of the lawn, acoustic guitar around his neck, water dripping from his dreadlocks, tattooed skin glistening. “Hey Hey” was already a pretty infectious song, made all the more so by the troubadour standing among us. As everyone sang along, Franti worked in a few bars of “Singing in the Rain” and how great the weather was in Kansas City.

That is it about water falling from the sky that makes every note hit deeper? Couples dance closer, hands clap harder and voices sing louder. The rain erodes social boundaries, arbitrary delineations of Our Group and Their Group and baptizes everyone in the communal experience of music.

The encore found everyone in the band down in the pit with the crowd, banging away at their instruments as if oblivious to the relationship between water and electricity. With the audience packed around, joining in on vocals and percussion, for a moment it almost felt like summer camp.

The first half of the concert couldn’t compare to the hour that developed in the downpour. Backed by a six-piece band, Franti delivered old favorites, like an acoustic arrangement of “Sometimes” that allowed for several solos, and new songs like the current single “Shake It Shake It,” which found everyone doing just that. Another stand-out track from the forthcoming “Sound of Sunshine” album was “Never Too Late,” a ballad about angels and life Franti wrote in the hospital while recovering from an emergency appendectomy last summer. It sounds corny, but he made it poignant.

At six feet, five inches, Franti is hard to miss, even in a chicken mask. Spearhead invaded the last song of opening act One Eskimo’s set dressed in Mexican wrestling masks. The band roughhoused around the stage and eventually hoisted the singer and bass player on their shoulders mid-song.

One Eskimo returned the favor during the final number of Spearhead’s two-hour set, appearing onstage with a sizable class of children culled from the crowd for “Say Hey (I Love You).” Spearhead’s surprise hit from last summer had everyone singing along from the first note, and Franti was happy to share the mic with the young fans onstage.

After everyone in both the elevated and ground-level audiences had their fill of singing and dancing, Franti discovered a wind-up, cymbal-playing monkey, which he happily held up to the mic and let have a solo.

A new rhythm came out of that, and Franti coaxed a boy to do the robot, much to the delight of the crowd. The rain was still coming down, but no one wanted to leave. When you’re this wet, what’s a few more drops?

Setlist: Love Don’t Wait, The Thing That Helps, Rude Boys Back in Town, All I Want Is You, Hello Bonjour, Shake it Shake It, Right On Time, Sometimes, Never Too Late, Sometimes, Everyone Deserves Music, Light Up Ya Lighter, Only Thing Missing Is You, Sound of Sunshine, Yell Fire, Hey Hey, I Won’t Leave You Alone, I’ll Be Waiting. Encore: Yes I Will, I Got Love For You, Say Hey (I Love You).

Keep reading:

Reggae, rock, hip-hop, pop: It’s all Michael Franti

Review: Michael Franti at the Wakarusa Music Festival (2007)

Read Full Post »

 (Above: Damian Marley and Nas perform at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo. on June 26, 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When the rapper Nas and reggae artist Damian Marley, youngest son of Bob Marley, first teamed up five years ago, the result was solid, but not spectacular. “Road to Zion” was a typical mash-up with Nas dropping a verse into the pocket of a mostly completed composition. There was little interaction between the two.

All of that immediately flies out the window on “Distant Relatives,” the new full-length collaboration between Nas and Marley. Open cut “As We Enter” finds the pair tag-teaming stanzas. As Nas spits “My man can speak patois/and I can speak rap star,” Marley drops the line “from Queens to Kingston/gunshot we use and govern the kingdom.”

The “rhythm piranhas” – as Marley dubs the duo – started toying with the idea of producing an EP to benefit school in Africa back in 2008, but the project grew as it progressed. Predictably, the lyrics find both vocalists working in a political vein, which is not a radical departure for either.

Nas shines in this environment, weaving street parables into Marley’s global paradigm. Marley, on the other hand, brings a sense of optimism lacking on most hip hop albums. His influence permits Nas to deliver his most straightforward and affirming lines this since “I Can” on the track “Count Your Blessings.”

Although “Distant Relatives” celebrates Africa, the only musician from the continent to appear on the record in person is K’naan, who blesses two tracks. The reset of the album captures the energy and rhythm of the motherland through samples that include Ethiopian jazz, Angolan singing and the Malian couple Amadou and Miriam. And while the pulse is definitely (defiantly?) African, the concrete jungle of Marley’s Jamaica and Nas’ New York are never far.

The only time the third world spell is broken comes on the song “My Generation.” Lil Wayne’s appearance on the track is passable, but feels like a ponderous attempt at mainstream radio play. The most egregious offender, however, is Joss Stone, ruins a decent production with an over-the-top delivery that seems to parody an American Idol wannabe.

Despite the title, the worlds of rap and reggae aren’t really that distant. Afrika Bambaata and Run-DMC dipped into the reggae in rap’s first decade. KRS-One later incorporated reggae into his 1987 hit “The Bridge is Over,” which famously dissed Nas’ home borough. The decade would also find KRS-One collaborating with Sly and Robbie and Shabba Ranks.

Likewise, Marley is no stranger to hip hop. His raspy voice has always worked better in a spoken cadence than in his limited singing range. Both of his major-label albums bounce with an urban beat. “Welcome to Jamrock,” the Grammy-winning album that fostered his meeting with Nas, also featured a track with The Roots MC Black Thought. In addition, Marley’s brother Stephen Marley, who produced two of the cuts on “Distant Strangers” oversaw a remix album of his father’s songs that featured The Roots, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Guru and former Fugee Lauryn Hill, who is married to Rohan Marley, another of Bob Marley’s sons.

“Distant Relatives” flattens this musical landscape. It is an ambitious project with global aims, not only musically, but lyrically, dealing with humanity, morality and messy nuances of emotion like greed and humility that can easily come across as clichés or preaching. Few artists have the vision to imagine a project of such scope, let alone pull it off.

Marley and Nas teamed up because they wanted to respond to the disasters in Haiti, Somalia and Darfur. Their intentions should be appreciated. The results should be celebrated.

Keep reading:

Review: The Original Wailers

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Bela Fleck’s Africa Project

Review: Sly and Robbie

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

Read Full Post »

(Above: “We and Dem” was one of several new cuts the Original Wailers performed in Kansas City.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

New material can be problematic for established acts. At a Kemper Arena concert several years ago, Elton John apologized for playing new songs and promised the he’d get to the hits as quickly as possible.
The Original Wailers took the opposite track Friday at the Voodoo Lounge, making several tracks from their upcoming album the centerpiece of the show. The gamble paid off.

Bob Marley casts a long shadow over all reggae acts, but the Original Wailers are especially stricken: Their two guitarists, J unior Marvin and Al Anderson, played with Marley on some of his greatest albums, including “Exodus” and “Uprising.”

The seven-piece band didn’t overlook those moments, but it was clear they want to be remembered as something more as well. After introducing themselves with a trio of Marley numbers, they dove into several songs from the as-yet unreleased album “Justice.”
Wailers1
Even though the crowd couldn’t sing along, they didn’t seem to mind. Part of this had to do with band’s enthusiasm for the numbers. It was evident they were happy to be playing their new creations, and as a result the performances bounced a little bit higher. The other reason is that the songs maintained several of Marley’s hallmarks, like socially conscious, yet upbeat lyrics underlined by gospel organ lines and subtly textured guitar parts.

“Blackbird Fly” was dedicated to the late Joseph Hill from Culture and floated as effortlessly as its title implied. “Backslider” was a song about hypocrites in the vein of “Who the Cap Fit,” and “We and Dem” featured a nifty dub bass-and-drum breakdown.

After several new songs, Anderson declared the band would take a request. There were shouts for “I Shot the Sheriff” and “No Woman No Cry.” Both were good suggestions; neither was played. Instead, the band played another new number, “What’s Love Supposed To Do.” It might have been a cruel trick, but the poppy number kept everyone dancing happily.

Marvin and keyboard player Desi Hyson shared vocal duties. The pair were as much educators as entertainers, pausing between tracks to frame each song. The song “Justice” was prefaced by a quote from founding Wailer Peter Tosh, which drew a big cheer.

The band didn’t deliver a big Marley hit until nearly halfway through the two-hour show. The Voodoo Lounge wasn’t close to full, but just about everyone in the place ran onto the dance floor during the opening chords of “Three Little Birds.” A more obscure cut “Heathen,” also from the “Exodus” album, kept the floor crowded thanks to Anderson and Marvin’s extended solos. A master of feel, Anderson added touches of Latin, psychedelica, blues and even metal into the songs.

After introducing “Jammin’” the crowd didn’t need an incentive to stick around, but Marvin gave them one anyway, leading them through dance steps, hand claps and a call and response. Anderson added a weird, dissonant blues riff to the mix that didn’t seem to fit but somehow worked. As the band worked the groove, backing vocalist Erica Newell, spurred on by fans near the stage, unleashed her funkiest dance moves of the night.

Wailers2After a brief break, Anderson resumed the stage alone, playing a guitar solo that recalled Jimmy Page’s “White Summer/Black Mountainside.” Eventually joined by drummer Paapa Nyarkoh, the rest of the band fell in as he slid into the familiar intro to “Redemption Song.” The performance had a hymn-like solemnity until Marvin kicked it into doubletime, reworking the last verse into a ska number.

The night ended with a 15-minute romp through “Exodus” that wouldn’t quit. After jamming through all the verses, Nyarkoh took a drum solo that didn’t slow the dancing by a single step. Marvin eventually regained the stage, but the band wouldn’t stop, working the groove tighter and tighter as Anderson took a long solo. At this point there were two options: continue playing the number for the rest of the night, which no one on stage or in the crowd seemed to mind, or break it off immediately. Realizing the band had an upcoming gig and the audience may have weekend plans, Anderson chose the latter. If he hadn’t we might all still be dancing.

Setlist: Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Forever Loving Jah, Solution, We Are the Children, Backslider, Justice, Pimper’s Paradise, We and Dem, Blackbird Fly, Three Little Birds, Heathen, What Love’s Supposed To Do, Jammin’. Encore: Al Anderson guitar solo > Redemption Song, Exodus/drum solo.

Keep reading:

Original Wailers keep promise to Bob Marley

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Sly and Robbie

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Read Full Post »

(Above: The Original Wailers perform Bob Marley’s classic “No Woman No Cry,” in 2008.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Guitarist Junior Marvin’s two musical heroes growing up: Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder.

And in a twist he couldn’t have dreamed of back then, both Marley and Wonder made competing offers for his services. It was Valentine’s Day, 1977.

Marvin had met Marley through Island Records president Chris Blackwell, who knew of Marvin’s work with Traffic in England. Wonder, meanwhile, saw Marvin play in the States with T-Bone Walker, Ike and Tina Turner and Billy Preston.

“I mean, how can you choose?” Marvin said. “Just getting a call from either of these guys was a dream come true, and I got calls from both on the same day.”

He sought the advice of friends and family and other musicians, he said.

“They said I had to go with the man who shared my heritage. I’m Jamaican, so I chose Bob Marley.”

Junior Marvin, left, with Bob Marley.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Marley and the Wailers were getting ready to record “Exodus.” Marvin’s distinctive guitar work was all over future classics “Jamming,” “One Love,” “Wait in Vain” and “Three Little Birds.” In 1999, Time magazine declared “Exodus” the album of the century.

“When Time wrote that, it was probably the proudest moment of my career,” Marvin said. “I am proud of that album. We all worked so hard on it. It was an honor to be selected over Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.”

In 1978, the Wailers produced the album “Kaya” and the hit “Is This Love.” The following year Marvin played on “Survival,” which united him with Al Anderson. Anderson, who had delivered the timeless guitar solo on Marley’s early hit “No Woman No Cry,” had left the Wailers in 1976 to work with Peter Tosh.

“I met Al while I was playing with T-Bone. He was working with Mary Young and playing on Island sessions at the time,” Marvin said. “One night I had a dream I would have the opportunity to play in a group with Al.”

Both Anderson and Marvin played with Marley until his death in 1981. Shortly after Marley died, they made a pact to continue performing as the Wailers.

“We spent time with Bob in Germany while he was ill,” Marvin said. “He asked us to keep the band together after he was gone. He made us promise to keep the standard of music high, but to create our own songs as well.”

Led by bass player Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the Wailers released three studio albums and three live efforts after Marley’s death. In 2008, the group collaborated with Kenny Chesney on a No. 1 country hit, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.”

“That was a lot of fun,” Marvin said. “He was real down-to-earth. He was interested in our history and was even talking about the possibility doing a reggae album.”

Chesney shot the video for “Heaven” in Jamaica with the Wailers. The band appeared happy on tape, but trouble was brewing. Before the end of the year, Marvin and Anderson left the band.

“We looked up to Family Man as our leader, but when his girlfriend took over it became a John and Yoko kind of thing,” Marvin said. “It was like the other band members didn’t count. There were no rehearsals, and we were not represented financially.”

The guitarists felt the musical standards weren’t living up to their promise to Marley, so they struck out on their own as the Original Wailers. Despite boasting two lead guitarists, the division of labor in the Original Wailers is relatively simple. Because they overlapped on only a few albums, each man plays lead on the material where he originally appeared. As a lead singer before his stint in the Wailers, Marvin handles the vocals.

“Whenever we play, we explain the two Wailers to people,” Marvin said. “I think there’s room for all of us to coexist.”

Original Wailers shows, Marvin said, are about half Marley classics and half new material. This summer he hopes the Original Wailers will release their first album, “Justice.”

“We just got off a five-week European tour, and the reaction to the classics and the new songs was pretty much the same,” Marvin said. “Obviously more people were able to sing along to ‘Buffalo Soldier,’ but they were dancing and enjoying the new songs as well. We were thrilled to see that.”

Marvin said he feels Marley’s spirit in all the music he creates and has no regrets about choosing Marley over Wonder back in 1977. Besides, he got his chance to play with Stevie Wonder.

“I have a photo of me standing between Stevie and Bob singing ‘jamming in the name of the Lord,’ ” Marvin said. “It’s from when we played the first black music convention in Philadelphia for (Philly soul songwriters and producers Kenny) Gamble and (Leon) Huff. It was a proud moment to be standing on the same stage as those two men at the same time.”

Keep reading:

Review: The Original Wailers

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Sly and Robbie

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Read Full Post »

(Above: Released last summer, “Say Hey (I Love You)” is the biggest hit in Michael Franti and Spearhead’s 16-year career.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Michael Franti’s first trip beyond the borders of the United States came when his family spent a year in Canada.

Seeing his homeland from the outside opened his eyes.

The musician has been around the world several times during his 20 years as a performer, but he has never stopped searching for new perspectives. Many of those experiences are funneled into the music he makes with the band Spearhead, which combines pop, rock, reggae, hip-hop and world influences.

“Playing music was really my first opportunity to travel,” Franti said. “Wherever I went, I would always go out and see stuff — museums, architecture, rivers, lakes, parks.”

As Franti became familiar with the larger offerings of major cities, he started seeking smaller experiences.

“The most unique experience you can have is just to have a conversation,” Franti said. “I’ve had heartfelt talks with people in parks in cities, and farmers in undeveloped countries who lay out plastic tarps to collect rainwater.”

Michael Franti is the opening act on John Mayer's Battle Studies Tour. The two will perform at the Sprint Center in Kansas City on March 22.

Standing six and a half feet tall and sporting long dreadlocks, Franti rarely blends in with a crowd. He can often be spotted with a guitar slung over his shoulder, walking barefoot.

“I’ve carried my guitar to places with the most harsh conditions. I’m talking about famine, hunger, poverty,” Franti said. “But those people don’t want to sing about how hard life is. They want to dance and clap and sing along.”

The adopted son of a teacher and university professor, Franti formed his first band while attending the University of San Francisco. He has been fronting Spearhead, his third outfit, for 16 years. Although Franti’s medium has shifted from hard-core punk to hip-hop to reggae and pop, his lyrics have always retained a fervent, though upbeat, political bent.

In 2006, Franti took his politics to a new level when he toured the Middle East with his guitar and a movie camera. His goal was to capture the emotions of war-torn people on film and in song. Franti returned with 200 hours of footage that was edited down to the 86-minute documentary “I Know I’m Not Alone.” The music from the trip appeared on the album “Yell Fire!”

“These experiences helped me realize a political song is only as good as its ability to make people dance and move,” Franti said. “I started writing songs of upliftment, inspiration. A lot of songs are about conviction for life and rising above.”

Franti and Spearhead’s most successful song by far is “Say Hey (I Love You).” Despite being released nearly a year ago, the song has taken on a surprising second life. It has popped up on the television show “Weeds,” appeared on the “Valentine’s Day” movie soundtrack and peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.

“Say Hey” had just started to crest last summer when Franti’s appendix ruptured, sending him to the hospital and the band’s concert dates by the wayside.

“We had been touring for a while, and things were starting to blow up,” Franti said. “Suddenly I have a near-death experience, and I’m in the hospital. It was a healthy reminder that life is precious, and you have to value every second. There are several songs on the new album about the preciousness of life and how grateful I am to be able to play music.”

Continuing the trend of his previous two albums, Franti made his new record, “The Sound of Sunshine,” in Jamaica with producers Sly and Robbie. The legendary duo has worked with everyone from reggae giants Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

“Working with Sly and Robbie is always a thrill. They are so quick to share their knowledge,” Franti said. “Every time I think a song needs a better beat, they’re the only ones I think of.”

As Spearhead worked in the studio in Jamaica, people on the street could hear the music they were making. The band could tell how well a track was working by how much it inspired the people outside.

“Jamaica is an island of contradictions,” Franti said. “It’s a tropical island, but a poor country. I could see what people were going through trying to find the light. That’s really what I was trying to write about on this album.”

One of the few places Franti hasn’t taken his music to is Haiti.

“We’ve been invited, but it hasn’t worked out,” Franti said. “We have played in East Timor, however, which is in a similar economic situation. I remember thinking when we played there, if this place ever had an earthquake, everything would crumble. There was no economic infrastructure.”

John Mayer, the headlining act on Franti’s current tour, once sang he was “waiting on the world to change.” Unlike Mayer, however, Franti says he has seen progress from his actions.

“When I first got started, I wrote a lot about the prisons in California and how much money was spent there instead of in schools,” Franti said. “Then someone asked me if I’d play in a prison, so we did that. Afterward, people would come up to me and tell me what they’ve done and how much music has helped them through that time and what they want to do to get out. I’m still getting letters from guys I played for.

“That’s why I travel with my guitar,” Franti said. “I don’t want to just sing about it, I want to be directly involved.”

An early visit to Kansas City

For all of his travels, Michael Franti will always remember Kansas City. In 1992, his political rap group the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy opened for U2.

Shortly after their concert at Arrowhead Stadium, Franti was hanging out with Bono and another band member when William S. Burroughs walked in. The Beat Generation legend was living in Lawrence at the time and was about to record an album with the Heroes.

“He came in carrying what looked like a bowling ball bag with him,” Franti said. “He drops it on the bed and it bounced like it was real heavy. Burroughs looks at us and goes, ‘I just thought you’d like to see my gun collection’ and pulls out a pistol with a barrel longer than my forearm.”

While Franti and Bono collected themselves, Franti’s bandmate Rono Tse picked up one of the weapons.

“Burroughs reaches over to him and says, ‘Give me a second here.’ He opens the chamber, dumps the bullets out and gives Rono the gun back,” Franti said. “Bono and I were talking about it later. We think he did it just for effect.”

Michael Franti timeline
1966 Michael Franti is born in Oakland, Calif., the son of an African-American father and an Irish-German-French mother. His mother puts him up for adoption because she is worried her family will not accept the baby. Franti is adopted by a couple with three biological children and one other adopted child.1986 As a student at the University of San Francisco, Franti forms his first band, the Beatnigs, an industrial, hard-core punk outfit.

1988 The Beatnigs release their only album. Their song “Television” becomes an underground success.

1990 Franti and his bandmate Rono Tse form the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The group is known for its jazz-based samples and heavy political lyrics.

1992 The Heroes release their only album, “Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury.” The band is invited to open for U2 on its tour, which stops at Arrowhead Stadium in October.

1994 Franti forms the band Spearhead, which releases its first album, “Home.”

1997 Spearhead leaves Capitol Records after releasing two albums. Franti starts his own label, Boo Boo Wax.

1999 Franti founds the annual Power to the Peaceful music festival in San Francisco.

2000 Franti rails against the death penalty on the concept album “Stay Human.”

2003 Spearhead responds to the post-9/11 landscape with the song “Bomb the World” and the album “Everyone Deserves Music.” Franti works with reggae musicians Sly and Robbie for the first time when he hires them to remix a track.

2006 Inspired by a trip to Israel, Baghdad, the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Franti produces the anti-war film “I Know I’m Not Alone.” The trip also influences Spearhead’s album “Yell Fire!” which is produced by Sly and Robbie. In June, the band headlines on the main stage on the final day of the Wakarusa Music Festival outside of Lawrence.

2007 Franti and Spearhead make their second appearance at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn. The group made its Bonnaroo debut in 2003 and is scheduled to perform there this June.

2008 Spearhead releases its sixth studio album, “All Rebel Rockers.” Again produced by Sly and Robbie, it is the group’s best-selling and highest-charting record to date.

2009 “Say Hey (I Love You)” is released as a single in June. Weeks later, Franti is hospitalized after his appendix ruptures. The band is forced to cancel its headlining slot at Wanderlust and several other festivals.

2010 Michael Franti and Spearhead open for John Mayer on his Battle Studies tour.

Keep reading:

Review: Michael Franti at Wakarusa

Review: Sly and Robbie

Read Full Post »

(Above: Toots and the Maytals deliver “54-46 Was My Number” to a massive French audience in 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

For four hours Sunday night, the back lot behind Grinder’s felt like a Jamaican resort.

The balmy summer weather was the perfect accompaniment to the music. Toots and the Maytals, the group that invented the word “reggae,” and the Wailers, the band that took it mainstream, celebrated both the roots and the future of the genre for a partially packed but fully appreciative audience.

While both groups feature only one founding member, it was more than enough for each ensemble. Led by bass player Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the Wailers blasted through an energetic hour of Bob Marley’s greatest hits.

The 10-piece band stuck closely to the original arrangements handed down from Mount Marley, but no one seemed to be looking for anything new. The Wailers played the hits for a crowd who had worn out their copies of “Legend” and needed no prompting to sing and dance along.

With a deck stacked so deeply, it was hard to go wrong, but a few songs stood out. “Jamming” took its title literally enough to feature some nice guitar work. “Wait In Vain” featured some nice harmony vocals from lead singer Elan Atias and the two female backing vocalists. The trio tossed the audience a curveball in the middle of that number when they worked “We Are the World” and a shout-out to Michael Jackson in the chorus.

The Wailers’ set ended with an epic medley of “Exodus” and “Punky Reggae Party.” Anchored by the wah guitar strumming and keyboard riff and garnished by horns, the 10-minute performance suggested a slithering, dancing convoy.

When “Exodus” was over, so was the set. It seemed a shame to shut down a band that felt like it was just getting start. The puzzlement was compounded by 45-minute wait before Toots and the Maytals came on.

Toots Hibbert made up for the wait between sets by opening with the song most people wanted to hear -– “Pressure Drop” -– and blasting through his best-known numbers. The music Hibbert made with the Maytals isn’t as famous as Marley’s, but it’s just as influential, mixing gospel, soul, funk and folk.

The earliest highlight wasn’t an original number, though. Hibbert and the seven-piece Maytals transformed “Louie Louie” to something that sounded like a Jamaican version of Booker T and the MGs that ended in double-time with Hibbert screaming like Ronald Isley at the end of “Shout” and verbally jousting with his two female backing singers. The trick worked so well it was reprised several times throughout the set.

A slowed-down reading of “Bam Bam” found Hibbert on acoustic guitar with an arrangement that betrayed the song’s sea shanty roots. Hibbert stayed on acoustic for a ferocious “Funky Kingston,” which more than lived up to its title. He blew a blues harp on “My Love Is So Strong” and dared the crowd to keep up with his fast dance moves several times.

The indefatigable Hibbert still has great pipes and he showed them off frequently. An improvised tribute to Kinston went from soul ballad to blues shuffle to reggae groove before getting a big gospel finish. The Maytals’ church collided with a great cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” that reclaimed the number from Dwight Schrute and Andy Bernard’s break room shenanigans.

The Maytals’ 95-minute set ended with romps through “Broadway Jungle” and “54-46 Was My Number” that culminated in another gospel blow-out and the band riffing on “Beat It.”

Public Property opened the evening with a 30-minute set played against the setting sun and an arriving audience. The six-piece band was definitely a disciple of the acts who followed. Their infectious set including the catchy “Choo-Choo Song.”

Setlists

The Wailers: Intro/horn instrumental, Lively Up Yourself, Rastaman Vibration, I Shot the Sheriff, Jamming, Wait In Vain ->We Are the World, Three Little Birds, One Love, Exodus/Punky Reggae Party

Toots and the Maytals: Pressure Drop, Pomp and Pride, Louie Louie, Reggae Got Soul, Time Tough, Bam Bam, Funky Kingston, unknown song, My Love is So Strong, Sweet and Dandy, Reggae Music All Right (improv), Take Me Home Country Roads, You Know, Light Your Light, Monkey Man/encore/Broadway Jungle, 54-46 Was My Number

Keep reading:

Review: Toots and the Maytals (2007)

Review: Sly and Robbie (2009)

Read Full Post »

toots-and-the-maytals

The Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

Toots and the Maytals rocked the Folly Theatre with a righteous rain of reggae in what has to be the first-ever Easter Saturday sunset service.

Toots Hibbert, his five-piece band and two female singers testified for two hours with the union of gospel and soul converted into groundbreaking reggae that had the near-capacity crowd dancing in the aisles, clapping on command and reveling in the spirit.

They didn’t waste any time getting to the good stuff. The opener, “Pressure Drop,” steamrolled right into classics like “Time Tough,” “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pump and Pride.”

Hibbert worked the crowd with the fervor of an evangelist with his energetic delivery and call and responses. The show was the fourth installment of “Cypress Avenue Live at the Folly,” and was its most successful to date.

The entire evening was a delight, but the highlights were a cover of “Country Roads Take Me Home,” and “54-46 Was My Number,” the final song of the night. The gospel moments, like the intro to “Country Roads Take Me Home” and the spiritual medley near the end of the main set had everyone singing, dancing and testifying.

The only blemish on an otherwise inspired evening was that Hibbert’s voice was difficult to hear all night. Shouts of “turn it up” resonated from the balcony, there was little the sound engineer could do to make Hibbert hold his microphone above chest level.

That his mic captured as much as it did is a testament to Hibbert’s powerful delivery. Before the show, one person mused how the show would work at the Folly, a space with limited room for dancing. He thought the Maytals were better suited for a venue like the Uptown.

He may have been right, but the staid surroundings didn’t stop anyone from having a great time. If they didn’t make it up in time for Easter services, one might understand: They’d already been taken to church.

Set list: Pressure Drop; Time Tough; Sweet and Dandy; Reggae Got Soul; Pump and Pride; Never Get Weary Yet; Bam Bam; Peeping Tom; Broadway Jungle; Country Roads (Take Me Home); Funky Kingston; True Love Is Hard To Find; Treat Me Good; Medley: It Was Written Down/Shining Light/Amen; Monkey Man. Encores: Love Gonna Walk Out On Me; Roots, Rock Reggae (jam); 54-46 Was My Number.

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 320 other followers