A gigantic multi-colored peace sign served as theatrical backdrop. A near capacity throng of approximately 1,150 stared at it blankly, on occasion, in between idle chatter and sips from plastic cups. Expectantly, they awaited Michael Franti & Spearhead to take to the Rialto Theater stage. It was a sweltering Friday night, June 8, and for the uninitiated the temperature was soon to rise.
Here are a few highlights.
When the funky guitar lick on “Once A Day” began to ring out—a song about unexpected moments in life—that’s when Michael Franti manifested. “Tucson, how you feeling?” The audience roared back. It goes without saying some days evince beauty and others far less than. “I had a really challenging moment when my son was diagnosed with a kidney disease. Moving through the initial tears made us realize life is precious. We need to hug, kiss and be close to each other every day and through that we could rise up and face his illness together,” says Franti, providing the backstory behind the song.
A trajectory of optimism was set for the evening.
For “The Sound of Sunshine” Franti was accompanied by a brightly dressed young girl. They jumped about and sang in unison, “And that’s the sound of sunshine coming down.” Soon, the band was pogoing up and down with elation too.
“Maybe you’re missing someone tonight? This is a song about loneliness,” says Franti, before counting in “I Got Love For You.” “I know today is a day that I might cry/I know you’re leaving to somewhere/Hope to find the peace of mind you’re seeking/In the back of a Greyhound bus you can be who you are/...I’ll be waiting right here for you.” Which after a few minutes the band cleverly segued into U2’s. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For…”
Franti shouted out, “It’s summertime y’all,” before stepping into the audience to sing “Summertime Is In Our Hands.” Red and purple lights flickered. Followed by the reggae groove of “Only Thing Missing Was You” with its sweet organ riffage. A sea of hands waved to the beat like an ocean.
Throughout the night, positively charged energy abounded. It was glorious. Clearly, Michael Franti & Spearhead’s overriding message of positivity has found a wide audience. A couple next to me couldn’t stop dancing. For many, the concert was a high energy aerobic workout.
At ease in front of an audience, before welcoming Spanish singer-songwriter Victoria Canal to join him, Franti announced that he and his wife, Sara Agah, were expecting a child. Franti discovered Canal on instagram. Shortly after, he invited her to open dates on the Stay Human Tour. They sang a new song “Stars on the Darkest Night.” “The stars shine brightest in the darkest night/So that you can find your way back home/Gonna be alright/So don’t you ever give up.”
Known for his activism and pursuing humanitarian causes, Franti has played in stadiums and prisons, on street corners and in war zones. He expanded, “If you look through history, a lot of terrible things have happened… This is a song between cynicism and optimism. It’s not about Democrats or Republicans,” Franti declared, before strumming out the opening chords to “Good to be Alive Today.” “I try to keep my head up, but this is Babylon/This world's in crisis, we try to fight it, this changing climate/With scientists and politicians divided by it/So many ways we could solve it/But they would never sign it.../It's in the Torah, Quran and in the Bible/Love is the message, but somehow we turn to rivals/It's come to people always picking up their rifles.” Canal crept out from the wings to sing the refrain, “What if everyone could say?/That it’s good to be alive today.”
After the applause faded, Canal took a seat at the keyboard. “Victoria and I wrote this song together about the predominance of violence in our society.” Canal adds, “We all have the potential to be healers. This is called ”Flower in the Gun.” Verse followed chorus, and over again, morphing into an epic extended jam. The crowded was rapturous as Canal vocalized. Notes soared to the top of the high ceiling and ricocheted back down.
“My Lord,” with its techno pulse and breakbeat drum rolls, and “Show Me Your Peace Sign,” with its laid-back reggae beat, both elicited strong crowd responses. The former moved people to dance with reckless abandon, the latter to chill and flash the peace sign. And some to pass around the vape. Oh, shit. Sorry. This was a family friendly show. It very well could have been tobacco. Right?
“I wrote this song for my wife,” Franti announced before launching into “Life Is Better With You,” a spirited song so contagious it should come with a warning. “Every day is like Valentine’s/I am not afraid of being alone/When I think of all the things that we’ve been through/Life is better with you.” A newly married couple danced on stage.
Dedicated to Anthony Bourdain. Franti declared, “It’s 11:59 and 59 seconds. I want to rock with you until the day I die. When there is so much going on that nothing feels right. This world is fucked up. But I am never giving up on it.”
The vibe transformed, the split second the infectious uptempo beat of “I’m Alive” kicked in. “All I want to do is be with you/I’m alive/I’m alive.” Franti invited kids from the audience to join him on stage. Everybody sang, “I know one thing/I love you.”
Afterwards, Franti explained the backdrop: “It’s the sun of eternal optimism. I believe in optimism.” Franti thanked the audience for attending, as the band went headlong into the last song of the night, “When The Sun Begins To Shine,” a new, yet-to-be-recorded song. “We’ll walk through the darkness out into the light.”
At the show’s end, a recording of John Lennon’s “Imagine” played as the spent band and various guests held each other, arm-in-arm, swaying side-to-side. Then, literally, everyone in the audience followed suit, forming a gigantic serpent coil that wound throughout the cavernous Rialto Theater. A rare moment of unity, indeed. This writer had never seen anything like it.
After taking the audience on a two-hour journey Michael Franti said goodbye: “Stay human. We love you.”