Sunday, October 12, 2008

Spearheading a return to form

It's great when a gig turns into a big love-in of jumping around, singing at the top of your voice and smiling like your life depended on it. Remove the walls of the venue, and the musical impetus, and the actions of those (including myself) present at Friday night's Michael Franti and Spearhead gig would have surely landed us in some sort of institution. It's been a while, but it seems Franti is back on form and setting the room ablaze with his special vibe.

Walking into the gig halfway into the first song (and unfortunately missing support act The Winnie Coopers), we were greeted by a steamy, sweaty mass of bods. A sea of humans all focused on one 6 foot 6 inch tall dread-locked man standing on stage, beckoning its every move. At his call, the collective bounces, raises its hands in the air, responds to his calls and claps the beat when he demands. Stepping into the room, the excitement is palpable, with everyone bopping, moving, gyrating and even fist-pumping their way through Spearhead's first Brisbane gig since 2006.

Feeling like it was time to get freaky, we headed to the bar, only to be greeted by the price list... which start with cans of domestic beers for $7.50!




Picking myself up off the floor, we handed over the $15 for 2 beers and headed back into the room to search for a vantage point. Heading over the other side of the venue, we squeezed in amongst a few small groups of music lovers as they each bopped to their own little gig. And then it hit me - this was less a gig than a collective of small group parties, all having their own version of a great time, with Spearhead as the soundtrack. Girls gyrated and rotated, occasionally spinning on their heels to sing a meaningful line back to their friends behind them. Guys frantically nodded their heads and tapped their toes, with some of the more game amongst them actually dancing (what??!?! When did this happen? Guys don't fucking dance?!? This gig must have been veeeerrrryyyy cool). As we wedged ourselves amongst this throng, we caught our first full glimpse of the band and realised that they were having probably the most fun of all up on stage. The 5 piece, which sometimes extended to a 6 piece with the addition of Jamaican vocalist Cherine Anderson for that much missed female touch, was working off each other and taking the seemingly never-ending songs in all sorts of weird directions: false endings, bizarre key changes, out-there timings, elongated codas, and extended jams and crowd call-and-responses. More notable than anything they were playing, however, was the sheer excitement and happiness they each seemed to exude while on stage. The Tiger noticed it enough to comment on it, pointing out that she had never seen a band so happy to be on stage before. Awesome!

It had been a few years since I'd seen the band, or Franti himself, in such a spirit. In fact, it would have been way back at the beginning of my musical journey with Spearhead, the release of Stay Human, that they were in such form. The past few years, and couple of albums by both Spearhead and Franti by himself, had the distinct air of someone who was struggling with concept of being in an important social position, and it risked turning into a shit heap where the political will of the band and individuals threatened to swamp the music itself (like U2, or late Midnight Oil). This gig (and the new album All Rebel Rockers) showed, however, that they had turned their focus back to their artistic purpose and had spent some real time perfecting their craft. And tonight's smiles - on both the band and the audience - showed they were succeeding in that mission.

Continuing our wanderings, we tried upstairs, on each side of the stage and at the very back of the crowd behind the sound desk, but there was to be no relief to the oppressive heat and humidity in the venue. It was not to be, and so we settled into our sweaty selves and continued being swept away by the great sounds on stage, and the amazing atmosphere around us. Before long (well, that's what I thought... but it was actually about 1 and a half hours later), the band departed the stage. Unlike most gigs, where this is the cue for the crowd to plead and beg through cheering and clapping for their heroes to return, Franti left us with a beat and a chant to continue. Which it did for a full 3 minutes or so, without break, until they ran back on stage for the extended encore. A mix of reworked classics and new favourites rounded out the night, which ended just as topsy-turvy as the encore break. No big finish, no "boom-crash"-stage lights down-guitar screeching-house lights up finale, but just the song ending, the house lights coming up and the DJ whacking on some Marley at full volume. The band stayed around for a little bit, signing autographs and getting pictures taken, before they finally called it a night and we joined the sweaty masses wandering around the back streets of the valley. Smelly, dishevelled, worn out and tired. But not a single person left that gig without a smile. Franti is back, and about bloody time, too!


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