Franti singin' praises to Jah

Spearhead Comes Alive

The Rage
Vancouver, B.C.
Wednesday, June 11, 1997

Review by Darren Kerr
Photography by Rodney Gitzel

"That's the great thing about protest songs: when somebody gets freed, they become irrelevant." Thus quoth Michael Franti, major literate groover and booty mover of Spearhead. He has just informed us that no more protest songs need be written about former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt. Everybody cheers. I think to myself (and, I would guess, so do quite a few others), "I don't know what Geronimo Pratt was all about, but if Michael Franti is happy that the man is free, that's all the vouching for that I need." Let the celebration begin!

Franti and guitarist Ras I Khan starts things off with the introduction/invocation to Spearhead as the band turns the dial to percolate, and lays out a groove worth waiting for... "Rock rock y'all/Spearheads comes alive/on the eve of two triple O/eleven forty five/no jive we be survivin'/singin' praises to Jah/every time we throw down and every time we puff La!"

Puffin La is a big part of Franti and company's outlook -- and a large section of tonight's show. "Ganja Babe" is given the full epic treatment; starting with Franti identifying and praising all the pot smokers, the song is introduced with an eerie, tinkly piano line which is kept up for the duration. Franti's voice is more gruff, more forceful and, well, more ragga here than on album. He goes straight from this to dis'ing the Spice Girls, and then he demonstrates what singing should sound like with a paean to the romance of da 'erb which had the lyrics "I'll be there with a joint for you." This part of the show is bathed in luscious green light, like a beautiful Motown dream.

The show has great pace. The way that the players segue into the next song, seamless, from full-out all guns blazing funk to slow jams to "playing the dozens" (with Franti getting called "skinny legs" and singer Genie Simmons being razzed about wearing Ru Paul's old shirt), they have it all running like a well-oiled machine.

Franti and Simmons "Tha Payroll" is a thing of beauty, an eloquent statement with, dare I say, even more clarity in the guitar sound. This song brings tumultuous applause from the crowd who drink it all in, swaying and smiling. There's even a makeshift dance contest when an announcement is made about looking for someone to "come up and dance with this fine sister." One girl leaps at the chance, prompting Simmons to explain, "Sorry, honey, but I was hoping for a male." A suitable man is found, but he's embarrassed and about as funky a dancer as Preston Manning. After he leaves, the girl gets her chance and she gyrates, boogies and busts moves like it was the last day of Catholic school. "Well, I guess the best man for the job was a woman," states Simmons, declaring the victor.

For years Michael Franti has been a black knight on the chessboard of political issues. Tonight he rules court over the spirit of golf ("all the white golfers were angry when Tiger Woods won because they had to call a black man 'master'") and aims his knives at Nike for paying Tiger millions of dollars while people are slaving away in sweatshops in Indonesia. His songs hold powerful messages: "Food for tha Masses," "Chocolate Supa Highway," "Hole in the Bucket," and "Of Course You Can" come coated with experience and a cockiness that only comes from having total confidence in what you are doing.

Okay, enough with the Michael Franti love-in, let's start giving props to the rest of Spearhead. Ishmael (on loan from Prophets of Da City) is a more than adequate right-hand man as he bounces, struts, and runs from one side of the stage to the other, all the while pumping up the crowd, right on top of the lyrics. The foundations that the bass player are laying down are think and punchy -- we're talking jam-out jelly tight. Tight like dat and damn near perpetual. Great voice, too. Her shining moment comes during her extended funk work in "Of Course You Can."

guitarist Also in the zone is Smokey, the keyboard player and birthday boy, his head as smooth as the keys he's caressing, and the guitar player, who looks like Vernon Reid but plays like Steve Cropper. I couldn't always hear him as loud as I would've liked, but when I did, he was there, an important part of the pudding. Anchoring this funky vessel is the drummer who's so in sync with the band, and especially Franti, that I would swear he's clairvoyant.

And what can I say about Genie Simmons? The yin to Franti's yang, she has a voice that made this beige man's skin tingle. During her vocal spotlight, she hits and holds a very high note from the Mariah dimension for what seems like an eternity, but in reality is probably about 45 seconds. Simmons is a key component of the Spearhead sound.

I've never witnessed the wonder of Bob Marley in the flesh and I haven't experienced the circus that is Parliament/Funkadelic, but I feel I am a better man for seeing this show. Maybe one day radio programmers will get their narrow-minded little heads out of their demographically-trained asses. Maybe one day they will get the message. Maybe one day...

First published in Drop-D Magazine on July 5, 1997

Index | Search | E-mail | Info | Copyright

Considering copying some of the images from this story?
Please read this first. Thanks.