(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.
(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.”
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.
(Above: Modest Mouse’s concert at the Uptown Theater in March deserves an honorable mention.)
By Joel Francis
Stevie Wonder, Starlight Theater, June 27
One day after the shocking death of Michael Jackson, Motown legend Stevie Wonder took the stage before a packed Starlight Theater to both grieve and celebrate his old friend. Wonder’s songbook and the scarcity of his performances – he last played Kansas City in 1986 – already guaranteed a special evening. The timing made it historic. Keep reading….
Bela Fleck, Uptown Theater, April 2
Banjo legend Bela Fleck ditched his band the Flecktones for a half dozen African musicians he encountered on his musical adventure across the continent. The three-hour showcase not only exposed the audience to artists they likely wouldn’t have otherwise been able to experience, but brought the performers to the nooks and crannies of America. Keep reading ….
Sonny Rollins, Walton Arts Center (Fayetteville, Ark.), April 16
Saxophone legend Sonny Rollins marked his first performance in the state of Arkansas by reminiscing about radio host Bob Burns, aka the Arkansas Traveler and crowing about his idol, native son Louis Jordan. In between stories, Rollins and his four-piece band made transcendence standard with extended performances of chestnuts like “In A Sentimental Mood” and newer material. Keep reading ….
Leonard Cohen, Midland Theater, Nov. 9
Leonard Cohen knew that most of his biggest fans had never seen him in concert and that this tour would be their only chance to experience him in person. Accordingly, Cohen, 75, generously packed his three-hour concert with all his big numbers – “Hallelujah,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” “Everybody Knows,” and about two dozen more – some album cuts and one new song.
Helping Cohen through this immaculate musical buffet was an impeccable six-piece band. Javier Mas’ performance on bandurria and 12-string acoustic guitar frequently stole the spotlight. His playing added new shades and textures to the songs and his solos were always breathtaking. Reed man Dino Soldo was also impressive on clarinet, sax, harmonica and other wind instruments. Three backing vocalists, including Cohen’s longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, helped smooth the rough patches in Cohen’s gravely baritone.
The adoring, sold-out crowd marinated in every moment, cheering at choice lines and raining ovations on the surprisingly spry singer as he skipped and hopped joyously around the stage. Cohen may have been forced back on the road for financial reasons, but both he and his audience delighted in celebration.
Sly and Robbie, Folly Theater, June 6
Lee “Scratch” Perry, Beaumont Club, August 30
This summer was a great time to be a reggae fan in Kansas City. Jamaican visitors included two biological sons of Bob Marley, and several metaphorical ones, including Toots and the Maytals, the reconstituted Wailers and Matisyahu. Pioneers Sly and Robbie and Lee “Scratch” Perry were the season’s bookends.
Sly and Robbie, veterans of literally hundreds of reggae recordings, kicked off the unofficial summer of reggae with nearly two hours of rumbling riddims at the Folly Theater. Nearly three months later, the eccentric and prolific producer “Scratch” Perry kept a small Beaumont Club crowd waiting for hours, before finally appearing with a psychotropic set of Bob Marley numbers he produced and originals like “Roast Fish and Cornbread” and “Pum Pum.”
As the last living performer from Miles Davis’ landmark jazz recording, Jimmy Cobb left a crowded Gem Theater crowd feeling anything but kind of blue. The drummer and his five-piece So What Band celebrated the 50th anniversary of “Kind of Blue” by playing all of its numbers, but treating the lauded original recordings more like an outline than a blueprint. When Cobb finally unleashed a drum solo more than an hour into the set, he was rewarded with the standing ovation he deserved. Keep reading ….
Pogues, Midland Theater, October 25
It took the renowned Irish acoustic punk band nearly three decades to reach Kansas City, and the groups notorious singer Shane McGowan wasn’t going to vacate the stage quickly. Alone onstage, the dying chords of “Fiesta” still ringing out, McGowan delivered a very inebriated, off-key version of “Kansas City.” A drink in each hand and cigarette dangling from his mouth, McGowan finally shuffled off to whoops and cheers.
The rest of the Pogues, recently reunited and sober (with one exception), have learned to live with these incidents. It’s probably safe to say a good portion of the crowd showed up because of them. Both the morbidly and musically curious had plenty of cause to be glad. After his only face plant of the evening, McGowan replied with aplomb “That’s why they call me Mr. Trips.” Overall, though, he was in good enough shape to deliver great versions of “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” “Dirty Old Town” and “Bottle of Smoke.”
Despite suffering from a muddy mix, the rest of the band held up their end of the bargain, especially accordion player James Fearnley who ran and slid around the stage like Bruce Springsteen at the Super Bowl and tin whistle-ist Spider Stacy’s percussive beating of his head with a cookie sheet during “Fiesta.” The McGowan songbook was augmented by the traditional Irish numbers “Irish Rover” and “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and late-Pogues number “Tuesday Morning.” There were a few stones left unturned – “Fairytale of New York” was missed – but more than enough good moments to justify the wait.
Alice Cooper, Ameristar Casino, August 8
Alice Cooper’s theatrics aren’t as shocking as they were 30 years ago. What is shocking is how captivating and entertaining his stage show remains. Cooper’s adventures with the noose, guillotine, iron maiden, hypodermic needle, wheelchair, guns and swords mesmerized a fist-pumping, sold-out audience who sang along to every syllable of “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and nearly every other song in the set. Keep reading ….
Raphael Saadiq, Voodoo Lounge, March 13
While not officially tied to the 50th Anniversary commemoration of Motown, Raphael Saadiq’s 75-minute concert in front of a pitifully small crowd at the Voodoo Lounge was an homage to old-school soul, complete with David Ruffin’s horned glasses, tight suits and choreographed dances. The best aspect, though, was that all the music was new and original material written by the former Tony! Toni! Tone! frontman, much of it drawn from his incredible album “The Way I See It.” Keep reading …
(Above: Sly and Robbie drop heavy riddim at Red Rocks in 2008.)
By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
If Robbie Shakespeare’s job as a musician fizzles, he could probably make a living bringing down buildings. Alongside rhythm partner Sly Dunbar, Shakespeare’s bass rattled the foundations of the Folly Theater for nearly two hours Saturday night.
Backed by the four-piece Taxi Gang, Sly and Robbie delivered their signature reggae sound, which has appeared on literally tens of thousands of records, encompassing everyone from Bob Dylan to Peter Tosh.
The night started with an instrumental that exceeded 20 minutes in which the musicians passed solos like a jazz combo. As the trombone and saxophone bridged the gap between Afro-beat and ska, the keyboards and guitar subliminally sparkled underneath. When the guitarist popped to the forefront he delivered solos that recalled Carlos Santana, displayed Eddie Van Halen’s two-finger tapping and went Jacques Cousteau on his wah peddle for a solo that sounded like it was played underwater.
Though they politely shared the spotlight, Sly and Robbie were never far from the forefront. Robbie’s bass was so loud it drowned out most of the vocals and probably registered on the Richter scale. Sly’s drums sat neatly on top, crisp, precise and articulate. Their playing wasn’t flashy, but their grooves spoke volumes.
The Folly was half-full at best, but the band worked the room like it was packed. Putting down his horn, the trombone player paced the stage leading the crowd in call and response. He delivered a great cover of LeRoy Smart’s “Ballistic Affair,” which featured Sly and Robbie on the original 1976 recording, and drew the biggest applause of the night with a reading of Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Chant.” The sextet slowed that number ever so slightly, accentuating the song’s gospel elements.
Though their playing was engaging, the music did get a little samey after about an hour. The echo-laden drums and behind-the-beat accompaniment typical of deep dub only hold so much room for exploration. Fortunately, a surprise appearance from singer Peter Gayle rescued the set.
Acting as if there were a secret ordinance against standing still, Gayle was constantly kicking his feet along with the beat, twirling his long dreadlocks or suggestively swinging his hips. His G-rated cover of Webbie’s “I Miss You” excited the crowd and the energy stayed high after he was gone.
The concert was part of the “Cypress Avenue Live at the Folly” series, and came just one night after the ensemble’s performance at the Wakarusa Music Festival in its new home at Ozark, Ark.
The band opened their encore set with a cover of Tex Ritter’s Oscar winning ““High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me).” Robbie said this was their first time performing the number and the arrangement was little more than his vocals and Sly pounding out the Bo Diddley beat on his bass drum. They closed with “Welcome to Jamrock,” which after several minutes somehow morphed into a gentle jazz saxophone solo. After saying good night, half the ensemble left the stage. Seemingly oblivious, the saxophone and keyboard players and guitarist played on, lost in the rhythm.