Wherever the “freaky people” gather, a party erupts. And it’s Michael Franti who brings them out.
Michael Franti could be best described as someone who fits in perfectly in Haight-Ashbury. The tattooed and dreadlocked musician shuns shoes, maintains a vegan diet, practices yoga, and constantly sings about peace and love. Each September, he organizes an annual Power to the Peaceful Festival in San Francisco. In Franti’s words, "All the freaky people make the beauty of the world".
Franti and his band, Spearhead (whose music is a mix of reggae, folk, rock, and hip-hop), are coming to Brussels to cap off the European leg of their Yell Fire! tour. I have seriously been into Michael Franti and Spearhead for about a year and a half, but I’ve only seen them once in concert – in New York in July 2005. I live in France – about a three-hour train ride north of Paris – but I was unable to attend their show in Paris, eight days before the Brussels gig. Being a dedicated “Spearit” (fan of the band), there is no thinking about it – I am making the trek to the Ancienne Belgique for the show.
The Ancienne Belgique is a venue in downtown Brussels that often hosts international acts. The place is sold out for the Michael Franti and Spearhead concert. But as I enter the Main Hall – the concert site – about 40 minutes before the show, fewer than 20 people are present.
One of them is sporting the perfect vibe, though. A blond teenager in a red tank top is beaming because she has secured a spot near the stage. Better yet, she has the perfect accessory for the concert: a yellow towel that reads – on one side – “Make Love” in red, and on the opposite side, “Not War” in black with a bomb drawn in the “o". She smiles as she poses for a picture on my camera.
More smiles abound as the place becomes packed around 8:10. The stage is still dark and empty, though, as hushed chatter reigns throughout the building. Shortly thereafter, the back of the stage is illuminated, revealing the tour logo: a hand doing the peace sign that’s under target from bullets. Even when guitarist Dave Shul hops on stage and strums music, relative silence still reigns. It’s as if the crowd has decided to contain its excitement.
Not for too long, though. The front of the stage is lit, and immediately, Franti leaps to the front with everyone roaring in applause, it’s "Time To Go Home". Not after one song, of course, but everyone joins Franti in opening with a call for American troops to come home.
Franti occasionally throws in an impromptu mention of the concert location while singing. He draws great applause when, during a Bob Marley mix, he blurts out, “It’s been a long time since I’ve had Brussels on my mind”. Later during "Never Too Late", he says "Everything's Better in Sunny Brussels in the Wintertime".
It’s easy for Brussels to be sunny when Franti involves the audience. During "Rock the Nation", a song with rather rebellious lyrics about turning the world upside down, he looks to his right and finds a dude in the audience, chilling near the stage. Franti suddenly invites (or pulls) the dude – a 20-something of Asian descent wearing a white tank top and green jeans – on stage. The Spearit promptly acts like someone who’s been told that he’s won a million dollars. It's not so much dancing the dude does – he, more or less, bounces up and down while holding his hand in the air and making the "no. 1" sign.
The best touch of Belgium is to come, though. Four songs later, Franti starts jamming softly on his guitar a tune called "Hello Bonjour", in which he sings "I don't need a passport to walk on this earth" and "I was made of this earth". But a woman backstage in a long, ankle-length teal dress, blue jeans, and black boots is scoping out the action on stage. Franti is still playing "Hello Bonjour" softly on his guitar until he shouts, "Brussels, welcome Marie Daulne on stage"!
The crowd roars as a switch is seemingly flipped. “Hello Bonjour" is transformed from a slow acoustic tune to a party jam as everyone is energized by the arrival of Marie Daulne, a Belgian singer of Congolese origin. She is the lead vocalist of the group, Zap Mama, who have performed at the Power to the Peaceful Festival. Daulne, who has collaborated with Franti before, believes that "the voice is itself an instrument".
So is flexibility. Daulne, at one point, bends her knees as low as possible and swivels them while turning back and forth and grooving with bassist Carl Young. Franti and Daulne urge the crowd to do the same, so the floor in front of the stage is a sea of Spearits swiveling their knees below stage level to "Hello Bonjour".
The atmosphere is more calm when Daulne and Franti team up for “I Wanna Be So High” – the only noise ringing throughout the Ancienne Belgique is that of Franti’s guitar and Daulne’s high-pitch voice. Another quiet of sorts is to come. Just after the song, during a lull in the concert, Franti is standing at the microphone. Then something comes his way. The same blond teenager who posed for a picture on my camera with the “Make Love, Not War” towel – well, she launches the towel toward him. Franti seems to be expecting the towel and catches it. There's no huge outward grin on his face, but after placing the towel on the microphone holder, he enters a storytelling mode.
Up to that point in the concert, Michael Franti hasn’t entered a storytelling mode. He’s not one to interrupt his concerts after every two or three songs to do so. But armed with the “Make Love, Not War” towel, he decides to talk about his experience in Iraq. In 2004, Franti went to the war torn country to document the human side of the conflict because he was frustrated with its media coverage. “They never mentioned the human cost,” he says of the coverage that focused solely on the economic and military aspects of the war. Franti got “tired at throwing stuff at the TV,” so he decided to do the next best thing – or certainly, the most dangerous: He went to Iraq to do a documentary, "I Know I’m Not Alone", on the human cost of the war.
While in Iraq, in front of an audience that would be holding “an M16 in one hand and a beer in another", Franti would sing songs about peace and love. Not what a group of U.S. servicemen would want to hear – “They were thinking ‘Couldn’t they have sent Jessica Simpson?’” “I thought they were going to kill me,” he says.
“But I’m still here,” he adds, before launching into – fittingly – a song called "I Know I’m Not Alone".
It’s clear that the concert is coming to an end. While "I Know I'm Not Alone" is not a downer and is a very important song, it's not the bang that should end a concert. Especially one that seems like a party. But there's no need to despair as the concert hasn't ended yet. Brussels is the last stop on the tour, and when you’ve been bouncing around the world for who knows how long, what song could better summarize the life of a touring band than “Everybody Ona Move"?
It’s not the just the musicians who are on the move during the concert. Earlier in the show, Franti leans over the stage to speak to some people standing to my right. I ask a couple of people near me what he said. “He asked if the kids could join him on stage,” a brown-haired dude in his twenties tells me. That seems like a strange request. There is a young boy in my vicinity who's wearing glasses and a yellow Spearhead shirt with the words “Yell Fire!” on the back. He’s going to be on stage?
Immediately after the applause from “I Know I’m Not Alone” dies down, Franti shouts, “This is the last song of our European tour. Everybody, put your hands up!” before launching into “Everybody Ona Move". At first, the performance seems no different from any other during a Spearhead concert. Except, three kids hop on stage – including the boy in the yellow Spearhead shirt. He's joined by two girls, and they bounce around and dance with Franti and Daulne. The trio might have a future as singers as each of them contribute to "Everybody Ona Move" even if they can only sing "Na Na Na". Young and old are indeed on a move, everyone is jumping and dancing. Franti, his band members, Daulne, and the warmup act, DJ Bioma, join together to dance and kick their feet high into the air while the music is still pumping.
When you join the world of Michael Franti and Spearhead, you won't be attending a concert. You'll be attending a party that unites people who make the beauty of the world.