Michael Franti & Spearhead at Summerfest
Michael Franti and Spearhead at Summerfest
Article by Adam Krueger
My first time at Summerfest I was a kid and it was the 90’s. I don’t remember much, but know I had a good time. With one or two exceptions I’ve gone every year since 2000. It can be easy to take it for granted a bit. But the fact is, like Ron Burgundy, it’s a pretty big deal. Last year I learned a bit of just how big when my girlfriend and I started to host for AirBnB. During the time of Summerfest we had guests from all over the country and even a few international travelers coming to the Big Gig. All of this only makes what I’m about to say sound stranger. Because occasionally despite this, you will find some people living not far from Milwaukee who will express to me they’ve never even heard of Summerfest. An actor-friend of mine from Chicago, who is obsessed with Janelle Monae along with her husband, told me until a few weeks ago she had no idea that the biggest music festival in the world was only ninety minutes north of her. “How did I not know about this?” she asked me. Most Chicago folks think the world ends at Evanston, I told her. But once her and a few friends scored free tickets to Friday’s show, she was determined to see one of her favorite artists. After my partner and I met up with them it was an inspiring sight to watch someone take it all in for the first time, especially for a twenty year veteran like myself. She said she was blown away by the size of it all after taking the air-lift. She was even more excited to see some of her old college friends who used to practice in her dorms play, Jukebox the Ghost. We all sang along joyously to a folk rendition of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” by Judah and the Lion, who claimed early on that their shows only had two rules. The first rule was that no matter your background for the next hour or so everyone there was family and the second being that family would always support each other. Their unique brand of folk, rock, and hip-hop easily won the crowd over along with their sheer elation of playing. We left early, however, so as to not miss a second of Monae’s set because after her release of one of the year’s best albums, “Dirty Computer,” we all knew good seats would be hard to come by. Somehow, someway we managed to find seats in at the BMO Harris Pavilion despite not having tickets to the sold-out event, either by the distracting beauty of my company, or maybe just the ineptitude of the security. Either way, it worked. We caught the last few songs of B-Free, the Milwaukee native soul and R&B singer, (who will also be playing on Chill on the Hill on July 10th, check her out, she’s great), including a stunning rendition of an old Lauryn Hill song from “Miseducation.”
The entire crowd was gushing with love and admiration cheering for Janelle as she took the stage. If you did not know that my friend has a signed copy of Janelle Monae’s picture on her wall as you enter her home you might have guessed as much, and she was not alone. Janelle Monae was brilliant and beautiful as in real-time you could watch her convert every nonbeliever with every passing song to further and further degrees of fanaticism. Her set was elaborate, the costumes were fresh and eclectic, the dancers were electric, and the visuals that the band stood before were dripping with lush and vivid poignancy. But above everything, the songs were amazing, timely and bursting with messages of empathy and care. I could go on about how wonderful it was, but I know others with a superior knowledge of her work and a greater vernacular for talking about her music will do just that, and the truth is this writing isn’t really about Janelle Monae, but she is an important part of it.
Ever since seeing Michael Franti and Spearhead at Summerfest back in 2011 he has been a personal favorite of mine, not to mention being one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. But every time since that he has come to town someone or something has prevented me from going. The only thing that could possibly keep me from missing even the first half of his set was the fact was I lucked out with seats I should not have had, that I was with my partner and a good friend on a perfect summer night to see one of my new favorite artists—who just so happened to be playing at the same time as Spearhead. Sometimes Summerfest can be perhaps too good of a thing, if that can be said. So after the first half of Janelle, my partner and I leave my old friend along with a few new ones and we rushed across the grounds to the other side of the park for Franti. We go past Slightly Stoopid as I recall hazily many afternoons sitting in college dorm rooms listening to them and doing what college kids do when you listen to bands like Slightly Stoopid. We pass The Flaming Lips and I remember seeing them with another old friend years ago, also at Summerfest. But finally we get there.
I’m confused for a half a minute as I don’t see Franti on stage, but then I realize he’s in the crowd. He’s dancing and singing and hugging everyone. People of all ages and all backgrounds are dancing and singing as well, some even greeting the strangers around them at the singer’s request. The band’s blend of rock, soul, reggae, hip-hop, and various other strands of world music from a band whose members actually come from all over the world is a kind of music I cannot fathom anyone not liking at least a little bit. But everyone there absolutely loved it and despite this I believe the happiest one was Michael Franti himself. You see, Franti used to be a much angrier man. This isn’t an insult or slander of any kind. I have no doubt Michael has always been a good person. But from listening to his earlier albums you can tell. He was a man who wanted to rage against machines, to speak truth to power, to demand justice, to tear down old worlds and build new ones. I have no doubt that this is still a part of him. But it isn’t his central message these days. Now Michael Franti just wants people to come together, to forget our differences, and to be happy and to show love. He has said in no uncertain terms in recent interviews that he believes in what he is doing now more than ever before and watching the way he moves and listening to him sing and speak to us, you can tell. You can hear the compassion and humanity in his music without an ounce of insincerity as he sings about summertime and relationships and the need for healing for a country more divided than it has been in decades. On this tour he has included a nineteen year old woman named Victoria Canal that Franti had discovered on Instagram. She’s a singer/songwriter, ukulele player, pianist, and guitarist from New York City who played and sang beautifully, who spoke graciously over her love of music, showing us all what she has overcome to an elated audience that was the last to leave that night as the band played beyond their curfew. He closed his set as he always does inviting all the children on stage to dance and even sing with the band for “Say Hey (I Love You).” Franti ends with about ninety-seconds of John Lennon’s “Imagine” blasting from the speakers as the audience gathers arm in arm singing and swaying rhythmically as one. Yes, it was a little corny, but I don’t think anybody that night cared from the looks on their faces.
We live in a time that can be scary for many and you can call me naïve or overly optimistic but I think as long as we have artists who stand up to hate, who sing and talk about love and compassion, people like those in Judah and the Lion, B-Free, Janelle Monae, Vicotia Canal, and Michael Franti, with places to come together to enjoy them there will be good reason to hope and dream for a better world ahead.