I didnt' want to watch Michael Franti's show at the Jazz Fest. But I had friends in the audience with cold beer and a little patch of space. The reason I didn't want to see Franti's show is because I fell out of love with his music. Falling out of love with an artist can be one of two experiences. You're either disappointed with what they have become, or you become disappointed with what you used to be. For me it was a combination of both that made much of his stuff insufferable.
In particular, I refer to the tearjerking pathos of his album 'Home' or perhaps it was the other Chocolate Supa Highway? There's something about the border of folk music and politics that unnerves me. So I don't want to hear a song about the contemplation of suicide, or getting a letter about HIV in the mail, or any song that seems to require 'fuck the police' in the lyrics. It's not that I simply disagree with the politics but the juxtaposition with such agitprop inside dance music is unnerving. In other words, Franti makes art, not just entertainment, and I don't like mixing the two.
Franti is 1/3 of the way to redemption in my eyes, but not becuase I think any differently of him, but I think he has recognized that he has to have a party show, and today he had a party show which was a very long way from the music that made him famous. Today being the final day of the Jazz Fest in New Orleans, my first time.
Franti is a frantic figure who knows how to rock the right crowd. But I almost hesitate to call him a performer. He is not so much a performer as he is a minister, and his performance is to create an effect in his audience. The effect was effective.
I dont' like crowds. At the same time, I think very highly of the idea of having mass rituals. So in my mind, which wasn't so far from alien observation mode, I am thinking about what happens when a man on stage directs a crowd. It's different from a DJ, but less different from a political speaker at a rally. The political content of the rally is what gives me pause, and I know that Franti is not merely in the music business to make people feel good but speaks of empowerment.
Franti uses a hiphop concert formula which is tried and true, which is to get the crowd to do the work when beats and lyrics from the stage are all unsurprising and the bars begin to drag on. You know the old critique - don't ask me to say 'ho' and raise my hands in the air and jump, if the music inspires, I'll do that on my own. Franti never stops asking.
The odd bit is that when he brought a violinist (or I should say fiddle player) onto the stage, he didn't have to ask twice. Here is the border between bluegrass and hiphop and the crowd absolutely loved it. I loved it. It had a kind of energy that is rarely heard anywhere outside of Phish (I think), and I hope to hear more of that.
Franti is redeemed by his willingness and ability to rock the crowd against no particular big ideas and messages. I can see that he gets that. Using his call and response and moshing it up in the crowd, he created an excellent atmosphere. And while I was marginally annoyed by the hugs and the passing of the herb I had to decline, I enjoyed exactly what he did produce on Sunday. It was the Holy Ghost part of church and the message was Big Easy. Celebrate life. Love. Peace. All good from the folk and party to the people.
So the question is whether such a man who can and does perform alter calls and gets people to send their babies and their grandparents up onto the stage to shake their stuff or rap into the mic or air guitar with real guitar props is content to party in that non-threatening bucket. I couldn't read it on his face that he was 100% in the party moment. There was too much structure and control in the whole offering. Franti is about 6 foot five and handsome, exuding a John the Baptist vibe and moving as widely around as any 45 year old could dream of, swapping out guitars for every song.
I saw another third of Franti on stage. The party man, not the political party man. And all of the music was designed to keep the good time party rolling. It gives me a reason to refresh my consideration of Franti and Spearhead. What's going on?