Concert preview and interview: Michael Franti talks about his new album, touring with Santana and the magic of social media
Michael Franti has been a working musician since 1987, touring steadily and putting out seven albums with his long-time band, Spearhead, as well as his own solo material.
Until recent years, he has enjoyed only modest commercial success; but he has been riding high for the past year on the popularity of his 2010 album “The Sound of Sunshine,” which gave him his first Billboard Top 20 debut of his career.
A San Francisco native whose sound blends elements of reggae, pop, hip-hop, folk, rock and more, Franti will open for another Bay Area legend, Carlos Santana, at the Fabulous Fox on September 6. I caught up with him by phone just before the kickoff of the Sound of Collective Consciousness Tour and chatted with him about his success, his new album (in the works) and more. A genuinely kind and warm individual, Franti, at age 45, seems to be at a contented place in his life after all he has done to get here.
“I’ve been making music now for almost 25 years since I put out my first record with this little punk rock band I had,” he says. “To have this kind of success at this point in my career, I appreciate it a lot more than I think than if it had happened to me right with the first song I put out. We spent decades driving around in vans and playing gigs for whomever would come see us, so we’re just really grateful at this point to have the fans we do.”
Franti has always been grassroots in building that fan base, touring nearly nonstop, and, in recent years, taking full advantage of social media and blogging to make those connections even stronger. He uses the Web daily to share what he is doing musically as well as to spread the messages of social consciousness he is known for, supporting causes across the globe from rainforests in the Amazon to helping fans in need at home.
“That’s how I’ve always viewed music — taking it to the streets,” he says. “We have really embraced new technology as a way of connecting with our fans. When I first started, we’d get hundreds of letters in the mail and I’d answer like a dozen a year. Then when email came along, I’d get thousands of messages and answer a few hundred of them; but with social messaging, now I can speak with a couple hundred thousand people just instantly. It’s really changed things.”
Franti and his label, Capitol, recently used the social web and his active website to introduce his latest video for the song “Only Thing Missing Was You” from “The Sound of Sunshine” — a departure from the norm in several ways.
Concert review: The War on Drugs (with Caveman) hook indie rock fans at the Billiken Club, Tuesday, August 30
The Billiken Club at St. Louis University is an intimate and inexpensive (as in free admission) way to enjoy some of the more buzzed-about bands in indie music. On Tuesday night the student-run music venue hosted Philadelphia’s the War On Drugs and Brooklyn’s Caveman, the first show of its fall lineup.
While I thought Caveman might be some ironic hipster dude with a laptop, it turned out the opening band was a drone-rocking five-piece. Caveman’s entire set — new songs from their debut album “Coco Beware” — existed under a soft blanket of shoegazey distortion that was punctured by two percussionists, one being lead vocalist, Matthew Iwanusa, sharing the duties on the drum kit. It was impressive to see how the two drummers transformed sluggish, beautiful noise into a strange indie rock tribal gathering as Iwanusa tried to sing in time.
I later heard from members of the band that their drummer was sick and they were forced to split drumming duties between an old friend kind enough to fill in and Iwanasa. For performance purposes this tactic of tom, snare, and cymbal rationing worked well during the jams when the guitar and keyboards rose in the mix, but the drumming seemed to distract from and drown out a lot of the melody within the songs, especially Iwanusa’s softer croon. After listening to the band’s music on Myspace, songs like “Decide” and “Old Friend” sound much better served by a single drummer. Get well soon, drummer for Caveman!
The War On Drugs’ new album, “Slave Ambient” is a masterpiece and I was excited to see it performed, as I’d read that front man, Adam Granduciel, had worked tirelessly for three years to craft every song. The songs on “Slave Ambient” all have an Americana backbone, with Granduciel’s signature distorted guitar murmurs, but are sonically bolstered by glossy synthesizers. The combination of triumphant heartland rock and buzzing shoegaze — with a little new wave for nostalgic purposes — makes “Slave Ambient” sound like Day 1 (or even the last day) of a road trip across the U.S.A.
Performing all this fresh and calculated material seemed like a breeze for Granduciel and his three backing members. The singer is known for having stage fright, but he was able to execute his front man duties without any flaws. Although he played most of the set with his eyes closed, his presence as a vocalist and lead guitarist was captivating. Whenever Granduciel stepped to the mic to sing, his voice, reminiscent of Dylan, penetrated the entire room, despite the babble of atmosphere created by all the stomp pedal effects rigged up to his guitar.
The band high tailed it through “Slave Ambient” standouts “Come To The City” and “Your Love Is Calling My Name”; both had marching qualities to them with varying tempos. Often the War On Drugs smoothly wove songs together and created ambient noise before launching into new selections. They only paused a few times to acknowledge the audience, and I didn’t realize how big the crowd was at the Billiken until Granduciel asked, “What is a Billiken?” No one seemed to really know, but a “hybrid dwarf/vampire” was the answer that got the most positive reaction from the crowd.
Sonny Landreth is performing at the Big Muddy Blues Festival on Sunday, September 4. As possibly the best slide guitar player in the world, Landreth has a long and storied career. I rang the Louisiana native up to chat, and he glided across topics from the Deep Water Horizon fiasco to Eddie Van Halen.
Joe Duepner: Hey, how’s it going?
Sonny Landreth: It’s going good. I’m home, that’s a good thing. We’ve been in the studio and working on a new album. So we plugged holes in the schedule so we could have the time to do that. I’m hoping to have everything finished in January. And release it in April of next year.
Sounds great. Are you working under a title?
I have a few that are in the running (laughs), so I guess after assembling it, I’ll get working on it.
I know on your last album there were a few songs that dealt with Katrina. Do you have anything about the BP Oil disaster on the new album?
First of all that was horrible. Beyond imagining. I’m sure at one point there will be a song out of me as everyone else around here. But this project I’m doing is going to be my first all instrumental type. So you know, there’s a few titles yet to make their way into it, so there might be one that makes its way into it yet.
How did that affect the crawfishermen situation down there?
Yeah, well it really messed all that up. It was really rough, of course on all the locals, distributors and fishermen. It is a lot better now, but the craw fishers, it was especially tough on them.
Such a terrible thing for the entire area. On that note, what’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you on tour?
Well, the worst thing would have to be, there’s no question, we were in New York City for 9/11, and that was absolutely the worst. Not even to mention the tragedy, which is mind boggling, and dealing with all that, the damage to the psyche as individuals and the entire city, the entire country, and the world. That’s something I’ll never forget.
Then just the practical logistics of trying to get out of the city. Everything was shut down. I was with John Hiatt at the time, so it was John Hiatt and the Goners. Fortunately our road manager somehow found the last van in the city, and was able to get some of the crew out across the bridge with our gear. They had parked the bus on the other side of the bridge because there’s no place to park in Manhattan. So the rest of us went down to the train station and caught a train to Philadelphia. Then when the crew could finally make it across the bridge and get on the bus and pick us up on the bus, we headed straight for Nashville.
The bass player and I jumped out there and Avis [Rental] was giving out free cars to anyone affected by event so we drove straight home to Lafayette, La. There was just a lot going on, you know what I mean? This is a long-winded answer, but we went back [to the East coast] a week later to go back and see all that. Drove by the Pentagon and all that. We did shows in the area and radio things involved in all that.
The other thing was, we were out on the tour with BB King, so we had to go back and finish out those gigs that we missed. And I felt good for that, because that’s what we had to offer: a distraction and a good way for people to kick back and enjoy music.
St. Louis’ own Old Lights opened the second day of LouFest with class and passion. Their set was mostly attended by old fans and friends with a slow trickle of people coming in during the music.
LouFest, like any music festival, has its fair share of people coming solely for the headliners, but Old Lights had fun on the stage and wrung their tunes out for all they were worth. The southside band has become one of the flagships for the St. Louis music scene’s legitimacy, the city’s capacity to produce professional artists, and for good reason: The band is tight. But sometimes it seemed like the songs were safe emulations of what a more adventurous band could turn into more dangerous rock ‘n’ roll. David Beeman’s rush of noisy upper-neck strumming wasn’t as exciting as his face suggested, nor were the songs as infectious as the band wanted them to be, calling for claps and chants. Still, their music is solid and it was good to see them opening the day.
Jumbling Towers completed the local music set for the day on the East stage. Stylistically, the band has a lot going on: Josiah DeBoer’s cringy vocals border on the comedic, while his snappy, sometimes mean guitar work slips out of a void like Robert Fripp on Eno’s stuff. The other members of the band basically set up a dance-pop rhythm that seems generic except for the huge space between the instruments. Maybe this is just a result of playing on an outdoor stage, but it made them sound weirder, harder to put your ear’s finger on, which is almost always a good thing. They lacked some of the upright composure Old Lights had, and it was good to see the goofier side of our city’s music represented.
Then, anyone just arriving or drinking in a lawn chair or thumbing through records at the Euclid Records tent got woken the fuck up by Ume. This three-piece from Austin brings a fat sound united under guitarist/vocalist Lauren Larson’s serrated, live-wire fretwork and her mix of delicate crooning and all-out howl.
She also moved more than the crowd did while playing, stirring up the humidity with kicks and showers of headbangs while wringing the neck of her guitar for muscled-up, nerve-twitch melodies. Bassist Eric Larson threads his fuzzed-out sound through the guitar with perfect balance, at times echoing her flood of 12th fret notes with a single line eight frets lower. Ume’s new drummer, Rachel Fuhrer, hammers out a big, crisp rock sound, her sure and distinct kick and tom work as integral to the band’s sound as John Bonham’s was to Led Zeppelin. Lauren Larson claimed they drove 15 hours overnight to get to LouFest, and I couldn’t have been more grateful to them. They brought some crazy noise to a festival that had too little.
The change from band to band was a little more abrasive on the second day of LouFest, but the need to adjust my ears, mindset and sometimes my emotions on the walk from stage to stage sort of renewed my spirits, opened my expectations of the next act. This was what happened in the transition from Ume to Lost in the Trees. While Ume hammered your heart out of the body’s normal time signature and jolted your muscles, Lost in the Trees was all tingle and shivers on the skin. Trees began with Ari Picker’s almost inaudible fingering and gentle, then soaring delivery of lyrics, and before you realized it, was churning into a kind of acoustic prog-rock.
The musicians pulled off the disorienting, enchanting swish of sounds with incredible control on songs like “All Alone in an Empty House” and the orchestral rush of “Walk Around the Lake.” Most of the songs bristled with the strings section (cellists Drew Anagnost and Leah Gibson; violinist Jenavieve Varga), which took on roles from whipping the song into a spectral waltz, to acting as a kind of counter-verbal sound to Picker’s unexpectedly sweet voice.
And then there was multi-instrumentalist Emma Nadeau, whose voice crept through you like theremin, even as she hammered a floor tom or dotted the keys of a xylophone (she even got a round of applause mid-song for a vocal solo). Unlike some of their stylistic cohorts and contemporaries, Trees sounds put you on edge, create a sense of alarm even as they are beautiful. And their live set at LouFest was no exception: Fheir music made me uneasy in the brightest part of day.
It was surreal to roll through Forest Park Saturday morning, past bikers and joggers, the quiet fountains, apartment buildings looming like mountains on either side of the park, and then, the sound of Troubadour Dali’s “Ducks In A Row” coasting out from atop the central field.
What’s weird is that this hasn’t always been happening: a music festival in Forest Park or anywhere in St. Louis. When I saw the two huge stages hunched on the hill, it was like déjà vu.
The air warbled in the heat, and there was still plenty of space when St. Louis’ Troubadour Dali unwound their tight, gaze-into-the-sun concoction of stinging rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelia. (And I apologize to Jon Hardy & the Public for missing their kick-off performance.) Their set was nearly perfect with enough energy and inertia in the music to heave the ball forward, draw the crowd in — something about that shoe-gazey sound makes for a great immersive music, but Dali’s sound is also rough around the edges, trading space for the electrifying, cathartic downstroke.
It was also an acid test for the way the day would sound through the speakers, because Dali had one of the most balanced sounds of the day — their through-the-cracks harmonies and tremolo and Drew Bailey’s fresh, rolling percussion. While most people showed up later in the day for the headlining acts, Troubadour Dali’s set stuck with me through the rest of the day, palimpsestic as a good dream.
After their set, singer and guitarist Ben Hinn directed the crowd over to the east stage to see Sleepy Sun, whom he described as “freakin’ awesome.” LouFest already had kind of an all-ages feel about it: plenty of 8-year-old kids milling around, infants on their parents shoulders, a monotonous, hip sea of sunglassed 20-somethings shoulder to shoulder with men and women who’d smoked weed at Monterey Pop or who at least had read the headlines about Altamont. It’s another reason that Dali’s set was important and relevant, their set like a tribute to the era and the events inseparable from that psychedelic sound.
Sleepy Sun offered more of the same, but with a little more blues at stake, a little more fire in their bellies. Led by singer Ben Constantino (a great frontman for a great band, some perfect conflation of Country Joe and all the members of Canned Heat transplanted into modern day San Francisco, and here playing for us), the band ripped and roared through the sometimes brooding, always noisy guts of their songs. Their set ended just short of 3 p.m., and the crowd was steadily growing in volume and responsiveness. LouFest was 2 for 2, but no one was ready for what came next.
Concert review: Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion (with Caleb Travers) offer harmonies and stories at the Duck Room, Friday, August 26
At the bar before the show, I chatted with Johnny Irion when, in a sign of things to come, the house p.a. shuffled to a Jayhawks song. Irion literally took note: He pulled a marker from his pocket, wrote the name of the band on his hand and excused himself to order some pre-show dinner.
Demonstrating their beautiful harmonies arranged for their literate folk songs, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion added a dash of humility, grace and professionalism to their show at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room last night.
After a short five-song opening set by St. Louis native Caleb Travers, Sarah Lee and Johnny took the stage at about 9:45 p.m. to approximately 100 fans. Drawn in as much by Guthrie’s famous musical lineage (daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody) as the pairing with her husband, singer-songwriter Irion, the audience of 30 to 60-year-old music fans appreciated the storytelling tradition that Guthrie and Irion bring to their musical blend of folk, rock and country.
Starting with the jangly sweetness of “Never Far From My Heart,” a song of domesticity and relationship logistics from their latest album, the show started with a lighthearted mood. The St. Louis audience welcomed the two to town after a couple of songs, and Irion admitted the two have, “been having a good time” here. He continued with the quip, “There are pictures of Chuck Berry everywhere. How could I not have fun?”
For their new album, “Bright Examples,” Sarah Lee and Johnny were able to draw from a stockpile of over 50 songs written over the past five years, eventually narrowing the list down to twelve originals. The project, recorded with Andy Cabic (Vetiver), expands the sound and depth of their initial album — the Gary Louris (of the Jayhawks) produced, “Exploration.” Though, Guthrie and Irion have continued a musical relationship with Louris; he co-wrote a song and contributed vocals with band mate Mark Olson for the new album. Even though Irion’s songs dominate much of the new record, the duo evenly mixed roughly half of Guthrie’s songs into the performance last night.
Plenty of options for those not attending LouFest this weekend.
Friday, August 26
There isn’t just one high-profile music event happening this weekend. St. Louis Bluesweek kicks off with free outdoor shows tonight (6-11:30) and tomorrow at 6th and Washington downtown. A full schedule of performers and all the week’s events can be found here.
Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening — a live (recorded at the shuttered Lucas School House) album by the Bottle Rockets — was recently released, and they’ll celebrate by playing a free show at Vintage Vinyl (6610 Delmar), starting at 7.
Pabst Blue Ribbon Official LouFest Pre-Party
Jon Hardy & the Public / Old Lights / Troubadour Dali
Off Broadway 3509 Lemp 8-12 Free (21+ only tonight) Smoke-free
Three of the four local bands playing the festival proper comprise this show, which is a curious concept; I doubt it will have an impact on someone’s decision to attend the main event, and it seems like a hassle for the two acts that have to turn around and be ready to play – early – the next day. JH&TP deliver soulful, powerful rock, with deft execution. OL perform sophisticated, pop-informed rock. Rock with a psychedelic bent from TD.
The UnMutuals / Stinkbomb / The Leftovers
The Crack Fox 1114 Olive 9-1 $? Smoking (so 21+ only)
Loud and snotty TUM find enough free time between their many other respective projects for a show. Hard rock with a punk sensibility. I’m not familiar with S or TL. This venue needs more attention to details on their website, which is often lacking key info; in addition to no cover amount, I only learned about the inclusion of TL when I caught Al Swacker mentioning them on his KDHX show, Greaser’s Lunchbox.
With LouFest coming up this weekend I thought I’d offer a few tips for two days of all-day music. I’m no expert on this stuff, but a very happy veteran of a dozen or so multi-day festivals.
This probably isn’t anything revelatory, no moments where Bugs Bunny might shout, “Eureka!” These are just reminders so you can make it from first chord to the final cymbal crash in good shape.
Water. The weather is tracking right now to be sunny with temps in the mid to high 80s so you probably won’t need massive amounts of H20, but bear it in mind. This is St. Louis, after all, so that could change. You can bring up to a 1 liter bottle of water in — take advantage. If you’re drinking water flavored with hops and barley, don’t be that guy face down on the ground being ill-treated for YouTube. That has nothing to do with hydration; just don’t be that person.
Sunscreen. If you are only going to be there late afternoon on, sunburn probably isn’t a big worry. But if you’re in for the whole thing, bring a tube with you. Otherwise, a normally comfortable shirt will feel like that chair of needles Han Solo was tortured in halfway through “Empire.” You might want to wear a hat for extra solar protection.
Clothing. If you stay for any length of time you’re probably gonna get dirty. Balance your fashion desires with how easy it will be to clean your (and maybe other people’s) sweat, sunscreen and everything else off of it.
Ear plugs. That much music could make your ears ring like crazy. Maybe I’m showing some age.
Shoes. You’ll be on your feet a lot, and other people might be on your feet too so I recommend skipping open-toe footwear.
I hope that helps. If you see a well-hydrated guy, covered in SPF900, wearing orange ear plugs and sportin’ some dope head gear say hi.