Oakland’s Fox Theatre is a really pretty venue. Ornately decorated, beautiful curvy lines, golden Buddhas flank the stage, tiered flooring and a nice sized balcony, ample bathrooms (yay!), a bar in front that serves food, along with about four other bars you can line up at, together, can make a lot of people very happy; silly and happy.
Arriving about 30-minutes before show time, I was caught up in the balcony when the opening band hit. I hadn’t heard of them before and I wanted to get up to the balcony to get a nice, full shot of the empty stage. And, I had my big 70-200 so I knew I could still get a decent shot from up there. But, after the first or maybe second song, and looking down upon the crowd to see the fun commencing, I yearned to be down there, on the floor to be amongst the movers and shakers, getting all the things that move and shake all warmed up.
A singer-songwriter out of Washington (state of), 20-year old Ethan Tucker has been playing music since he was a youngin. So the story goes, as Ethan tells, he’s always been a big fan of Michael Franti, even sporting the bare feet on stage. As a singer-songwriter trying to make it big, you gotta do what you gotta do. So, he got caught sneaking backstage, more than once, asking Michael to listen to him play one of his songs. Finally Michael agreed to listen and, turns out, was more than impressed by Ethan’s talents. So much that he decided to bring him on tour and help produce Ethan’s next album. Ethan has toured both as a solo artist and with his backing band. This night, we get the full band – acoustic, electric, bass, keyboards and drums, of course.
On the bill as The Ethan Tucker Band, they warm up the crowd with a high-energy 30-minute set of music that boarders on ska, reggae, blues, jazzy jams, and a little sumpthin along the lines of folk-hop; original for sure. The crowd really enjoyed the danceability of the music, the rough-rustic sound of Ethan’s voice that placed a little warmth down deep in your soul. Standing what looks to be well over 6 feet tall, barefoot, jeans and a flannel, strapped with an acoustic guitar, Ethan’s music has a sincerity to it, a passion behind it, warmth, soulful, a story teller in his own right.
Their set included mostly songs that will appear on the soon-to-be-released CD he is currently working on with Franti. Ethan does have an 11-song album out there, called “Lost Between” you can find on iTunes. “All I Need” was the opening choice, a very quick beat, ska-feeling sound, a little faster than sticky reggae, but still with that island feel. Ethan’s songs can range from a slow-soulful “Tease Me”, a song about a girl who breaks his heart, to a super fun, easy, danceable, reggae beat with “How the Cool Kids Dance”. I really liked both; with “Tease Me” putting Ethan’s lead guitar player in the spotlight, tossing in heavy notes that pull at your inner-gut, telling you the song came from a broken heart. “Tease me into the night. Tease me and it’s alright, it’s alright. I keep wasting my time, and you just tease me into the night.”
So, you know, as a photographer, you end up seeing the show through the lens. Well, not the whole show but if you can take snaps all night long, well, you can’t help it. So, I’m looking through the lens during “Crazy Tonight”, another new one found on the coming disc, and I hear maybe an extra voice chime in and then the crowd starts to get louder. A tall , tattooed figure is appearing stage left wearing no shoes and holding a microphone (that’d be my left, so is that stage right? Uh, who knows – any theatre majors in the house???). Michael comes out to add his supa-soulfulness to this smooth, swaying song, the crowd is flowing along like the waves of an ocean. I get the feeling this one will be found on that next CD he is planning and working on with Michael.
After one crazy, heavy, rippin, Hendrix-y, Delta bluesy song, where J. Bowman of Spearhead joins the stage to lend his style of that dizzying electric guitar, the band melts it down into their last song of their short, but incredibly fun set. Another reggae-feeling beat, “Rock Me” is a slow-jam, that gooey groove you can get from the Jamaica island sound, that tempo that sways you around, puts some give to your knees, lets you get down, real down. “Rock me baby in the morning light, once in the afternoon, and darlin’ twice in the night. Now, I said, touch me girl you make me feel so fine. The way we slow dancin’ to the red, red wine.” Uh huh.
Since I didn’t know much about him, I did have to do a bit of research on this guy. Most of the comments I read were from instant fans, those who recognized this young man’s talent, his abilities, his need to be heard and seen by many. You can find his music on his own web url, ethantuckermusic dot com, a handful on Reverbnation, and his CD, “Lost Between” can be found and heard on iTunes. Go get it!
We had a short break between bands, to change-up some instruments, add some funky fun colorful things to the stage, and let us rest up so we’d be ready to continue the party. Before the band comes out, a woman heads to the microphone to tell us about “Do It For The Love Foundation”. Along the lines of “Make A Wish”, this is a beautiful concept, a wonderful idea to help people living with advanced stages of life threatening illnesses, severe disabilities, and wounded veterans to attend a live concert and meet their favorite artist. This special foundation started earlier this year by Michael and Sara after a special experience. They were contacted by a fan whose husband was fighting Lou Gehrig’s disease, and who most likely would be attending his last concert at the Wanee Festival in April . Touched by their story and the love they shared, Michael and Sara wanted to do something special, so they offered to spend time with them backstage before the show and ended up inviting them on stage during the show. To quote their website, Do it For the Love dot org, “Although [Steve] was barely able to move his body, he asked [Hope] to lift him out of his chair. Wrapped in each other’s arms, they danced on stage in front of 20,0000 fellow music fans gathered at the event. There was not a dry eye in the house.” (wait, I’ll be right back, tears starting, need a tissue……) To date, they have already provided 45 wish grants. That’s 45 families and fans that they have made happy, changed theirlives, provided them with such wonderful experiences and forever memories to make what life they must manage, just a little warmer, just a little happier, just a little more “normal”. If you wish to contribute, feel free to visit their website to find out how. For Northern CA fans, there will be a private event at The Leonardini Family Vineyard House in St. Helena, Saturday, December 7th, in support of the foundation. Expensive but worth it. Well, do it for the love.
Back to the music! So, she then asks if we are ready for Michael Franti – while this may have been a rhetorical question, the crowd answers back with a huge cheer – oh yeah, I think we are! You can hear a low vibration of sound coming from the speakers, that gets a little louder and louder as we see Michael and the boyz hit the stage, singing “I Don’t Wanna Go”! BAM! As expected, nuthin less from these guys, starting off with a high-energy, fast-paced song to get the place jumpin’ – “I don’t wanna go-oh-oh, I don’t wanna go-oh-oh, I don’t wanna go-oh-oh no where, no where! Unless I’m goin’ with youuuuuuuu!” Michael shouts, “How you feelin’!” and the crowd happily responds with gleeful cheers!
This would segue into an equally fast paced “Yes I Will”, which I kind of didn’t recognize at first as it started seriously faster than the recording and maybe even since the last I’ve seen them (JBO last caught them at Napa’s Bottle Rock Festival, May). But, as soon as J. Bowman hits that familiar guitar sound, from an older album titled, Everyone Deserves Music (2003), I recognize the tune. With eleven albums since 1994, over the span of music he has crafted and shared with the world, what can you really impart about Michael Franti over the years is that he simply writes and sings with a sincerity, a lyrical speech about what moves him most, everyday. Some things bother him, some things make him feel deeper, some things make him love deeper, but most of all, his eyes and his heart see the beauty of the world in high-definition unique and colorful cultures. That’s probably why so many people relate to and love his music.
OK, so I was one happy freaky photographer in the pit cuz next up was, uh, “Freaky People” which transitioned nicely, right into Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” – such a groove to this song, seriously, had to stop snapping the camera and make sure I was snappin my fingers and shakin my thang. And a real smooth deep soulful voice from bassman Carl Young. My my, I’m sure he could do an awesome Barry White. Look out ladies!!!
Wait a minute… I hear that guitar rip, two times. Then the familiar beat of a song that has always gotten me deep down in my groove. From an older album of the same name, out in 2006. I just love, love, love, “Yell Fire!” with the strong political message about these human wars. “They tellin’ you to never worry about the future. They tellin’ you to never worry about the torture?.They tellin’ you that you’ll never see the horror. Spend it all today and we will bill you tomorrow! ….TV commercials for a poppin pill culture. Drug companies circlin like a vulture. An Iraqi babies with the G.I. Joe father. Ten years from now is anybody gonna bother? Yell Fire!” Yup, nuthin changes. You can surely count on one thing, history will repeat. My only disappointment was that this was not a finished song, but the consolation prize was “Rude Boys” which is a real fun one from the disc, All Rebel Rockers. (so unique!) A deep, slow groove, windin’ and a grindin….. perfectly into the next same, slow groove of “All I Want”. Michael stops singing right in the middle, just holds the mic and looks out to the fans, going crazy, waiting, waiting, waiting for the slow reggae jam to hit them again.
Slowing the crowd down for a minute, and giving another opportunity to sing along, “Nah-nah-na-na-na-nah-nah!” with “Do it for the Love”, Michael whispers something into the microphone. I couldn’t understand what he said but some did as there was a bit of a cheer from the pit. Then he starts with the soft lyrics, “I wake up in the morning and it’s six o’clock. They say there may be rain but the sun is hot. I wish I had some time just to kill today, and I wish I had a dime for every bill I’ve got to pay.” Ah, yes, it’s ”The Sound of Sunshine” – you could hear the entire place singing along with Michael, just up there strumming his acoustic guitar, the rest of the band watching it all. “And that’s the souuund of sunshine coming da-ah-ah-ah-own…. That’s the sound, of sunshine, coming down. One, two, three, uhuh!” He tells the story of being in the hospital, being more that just a bit nerved, but when he saw the sun shining, he felt better, like a message that the storm he was going through would pass by. He had his headphones so he could listen to and be centered by music, to him, the sound of sunshine. Then the beat gets a little faster as the band joins in, and then huge yellow balloons start falling down on the crowd, like big balls of sunshine coming down! Perfect moment filled with loads of kiddy fun, and I ain’t talkin’ just the crowd either, the band was laughing, running around, hitting the balloons back to the crowd, J. Bowman popping them with the neck of his guitar, complete blissful mayhem!
“11:59” is a new song from the latest disc, All People. Michael says, “This next song is a song about appreciating every second.” (OK, an aside…. The irony here for me is that the couple standing behind me is arguing the entire song, about something dumb I’m sure, arguing who is right and who is wrong….. shit, who cares, Michael friggin-Franti is on stage singing to you to make the MOST of every second, so you go ahead and argue the whole song. Shit. Let me move away…) Anyway, he strips his guitar and climbs down off the stage into the audience for this one. He’s got a story to tell. A cry to all people to say, hey, if we had just one second left to live, would we still steal, fight, hate, and be in fear of each other; or would we come together, love, rock and sing as one love, one blood, one heart, one soul, one drum, one rhythm and one people? He is surrounded by fans, right up close to him, reaching out to touch him, and he smiles at everyone, giving them acknowledgement, giving them warm hugs and big smiles. Imagine you had just one second left. What would you choose? Climbing back up to the stage, dancing, spinning in circles and singing over and over, that he would choose love “till the day I die!” It was quite a moment, and an even bigger moment for those he joined in the pit.
This is typical with Michael’s shows, he loves to break down the wall between the stage and the audience, often getting right into the mix, getting up close with fans to make connections, hug, shake hands, give high-five, making everyone in the crowd feel like they are in the front row. And he continues this with “Closer to You” – confetti everywhere and where is Michael? Where’d he go? Is he on stage? No. Is he back down on the floor in the audience? No. Standing in the balcony next to the videographer, both scratching our heads in wonder. And then there he is, up there in the balcony with us, running around the isles, hugging people, saying hi, sharing the love. Guess he wanted to get closer. And he continues his romp through the fans for, “Long Ride Home” – after all, The Fox is a big place and there were thousands of fans to say hello to! He makes it back to the stage for the end, directing the crowd to sing for him, “Its a looo-ong, riiiide home…….”
Music is the sound of life, and life is better with music and love and fun and family and friends…. and you. He speaks softly into the microphone telling everyone in the audience that if you have someone you love, someone you think you just can’t live without, someone who makes you whole, who you are, then say so, do something about it. “Life is Better With You” – is a story about his partner, his love, his world, his best friend, Sara. The love he feels, he shares outwardly, through his music, through his performances, through his new Foundation, “Do It For the Love” is a strong display of his love and appreciation for his own life. “Some days are better than other days, but these days, life is better with you.”
A nice, quiet, maybe unexpected moment for “Hey World” when the whole band, except Raleigh remaining at the keys, comes down to sit at the four stools placed at the front of the stage. All on acoustic, Manas on congas, they make this moment just that much more special. From the All Rebel Rockers album (2008), this would be the “Don’t Give Up Version”. When a band does this, sets up at the front of the stage for a quiet acoustic moment, they are looking to slow the crowd down, to share something from the stage, a different way of hearing this song performed (if you have this album, you know this song is crafted two different ways). Manas really has a beautiful voice, singing “I’ll never let you go” over and over, soulfully, with abandon, and then begins to just go off on that conga!!!! All three, Michael, Carl and J, all looking at him in amazement as if they could see smoke coming from the palms of his hands.
And, fail……… I forget to [write down] the remainder of the set list. I mess up by taking pictures and getting lost in the excitement of the confetti, figuring out where Michael went, more confetti, getting out of Michael’s way as he runs all around the balcony singing and hugging fans, Ethan Tucker joining the stage to sing with Michael, then little kids singing “I Love You”…… I was taken back witnessing a moment in the balcony. Michael seemed to recognize someone, reached out, and gave a guy a huge, long, warm embrace. I got off a snap or two and when Michael headed back to the floor, I went over and offered him a copy of the picture. The man said he had met Michael at a show years ago, in South Africa, either just like tonight (in the audience) or maybe he said it was backstage. Either way, it was a lovely moment to see.
Playing songs spanning at least seven of their many albums, their over hour and a half set included many opportunities for crowd participation, that socially conscious communal experience that Franti and Spearhead bring to their shows, making the fans surely feel like they were an integral part of the night. Like with, “Gangsta Girl (Put Your Arms Round Me)”, “I’m Alive”, and the encore, “Say Hey (I Love You)” when kids young and old were invited to the stage to sing, dance, and just get freaky and be the beauty of the world. And Michael sure loves the kids, surrounding himself with them, dancing, singing, taking pictures, and giving one sweet little girl the microphone, whispering the lyrics in her ear, “But I know, one thing, is I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you!” Yes, Michael Franti and Spearhead, we do love you!!!!!
I’m telling ya, they outta hand out that five hour energy drink at his shows, or coffee, or apples or spoonfuls of honey to keep up with this band! Oh, and ear plugs too because they like to make some noise!!!!!!!!
Again, I want to remark on Michael’s desire to keep his shows open, communal, a full experience, participation whether a crowd sing along, feeling you are close to him as he runs through the crowd to say hello, or you are one of those pulled up on stage to dance, sing and just get silly….. Not many musicians do this. He can also be seen after the performance is over, walking through the crowd again, thanking people for coming to his show, giving his autograph and taking pictures. What a show this was at The Fox Theatre. And after it was all over, I was wandering around looking for my lost lens cap and I ended up back in the main hall, where they were cranking some funky disco and continuing the dance party. As I left The Fox, I actually looked around outside for the disco bus…….. You know, so we could continue the fun, all night long……
*First started writing poetry, but bought a bass guitar and started writing music – all at college while living above KUSF, the college radio station. Well, thank goodness for that!
*Before Michael Franti and Spearhead, the band was simply Spearhead (’94 to present) where they changed from politically charged rap and hip hop to drawing more from funk and soul influences. First album was called Home (’94) and second was Chocolate Supa Highway (’97) – I have them both; raw, heavy beats, strong lyrics, reggae influences, and special guests in Stephen Marley and Joan Osborne. Go get ’em. And, even before Spearhead, Michael was in two other bands, The Beatnigs (late ’80’s industrial punk/spoken word) and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (Early ’90’s fusion of industrial and hip hop)
*In 2000, decided to no longer wear shoes; initially for three days, but now it has been years. It started after playing music on the streets of poor countries where many children couldn’t afford them. He can be seen wearing flip-flops if he has to (you know, “no shirt, no shoes, no service”). He partnered with Soles 4 Souls, a non-profit that collects shoes for families in need. He collected thousands of shoes from fans that either bring extras to shows to donate, or are moved to take ’em off and toss ’em right up on the stage. So Tom Jones gets underwear and he gets Doc Martins and Birkenstocks. Eh, probably better anyway……
*The tattoos of birds that turn into fish that turn into arrows on both arms run from his elbows to the tips of his pinky fingers, are based on a prayer from Tahiti. The story can be found on iheart.com. The reminders in this prayer are to watch the signs in your life and you will get what you need. Be observant, be still, get your bounty, whatever that is. Hum…. ooooommmmmmmmm…… And, he, or Sara, or a fan inspires him to write on his left forearm each day, filling in the blank to the tattoo that says, “Today I Pray For___________”. Ain’t that cool…..
*For maybe a decade (2000’s??), he hosted free concerts in San Francisco, called, “Power to the Peaceful”. I went to a few of these. Going through old pics I have one from maybe late ’90’s or early 2000 where Bob Weir and Woody Harrelson showed up. Cool! Those were fun……
*In 2001, awarded the Domestic Human Rights Award by Global Exchange for his work to end war. Right on.
*He wrote a song for President Obama, released in 2009 but not on any album. I have it, but for the life of me I can’t remember where I downloaded it…. Simply called, “Barak Obama” (yes we can).
*He’s had 10 songs appear in/on 15 different TV shows, movies, video games and/or commercials. Oh, and one song, “Light up Ya Lighter” was used by former center-fielder Shane Victorino years ago when with the Dodgers as his batter walk-up music. Who knew they had batter walk-up music. Really?
I Don’t Wanna Go, Yes I Will, Stay Human (All the Freaky People)> Family Affair> Stay Human, Yell Fire, Rude Boys Back in Town, All I Want is You, Do it for the Love, The Sound of Sunshine, 11:59, Closer to You, Long Ride Home, Life is Better With You, Gangsta Girl (Put Your Arms Round Me), Hey World….. And, they also played, but maybe not necessarily in this order: Hey Hey Hey, I’m Alive, All People Encore: Say Hey (I Love You)