February 12, 2003

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Local Live

Michael Franti
Not in Our Name Benefit Concert, Berkeley Community Theatre, Jan. 31

AMID THE DARKNESS of a wartime winter, the Not in Our Name Benefit Concert at the Berkeley Community Theatre ended in a springlike burst of flowers. For a while the roof itself seemed to rain roses. Michael Franti stood at the center of the happy tempest, watching a capacity crowd of 3,500 delirious fans tossing 2,000 baby red and whites up toward the balcony and back toward the doors in a kind of spontaneous redistribution of blossoms. "Sometimes I feel I can do anything," he had just sung. "Sometimes I wanna cry."

This is the new face of Franti, a chameleon who has been at the cutting edge of Bay Area music for almost two decades and is now settling into his latest and best transformation: a stalwart, articulate, and often lone voice for social justice and peace, an urban artist unafraid to embrace difference, and above all, a man finally, wholly comfortable in his skin.

With his first band, the Beatnigs, Franti deconstructed rock and Reaganism with a metallic rage. The shows back then, in the '80s, were cathartic too, but in a different way; the things flying were industrial sparks from Rono Tse's chainsaw. The tone was a leather-jacketed "No!" to militarism, racism, and compromise. With the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Franti and Tse refined their approach with Public Enemy-inspired beats and rhymes. But Franti also began turning his third eye inward (ambivalently talking about his mixed-race background on "Socio-Genetic Experiment") and outward (in the antihomophobic "Language of Violence" and the movement-mantric "Music and Politics"). In Spearhead, Franti dived headfirst into his blackness, mixing up Mayfield and Marley, Scott-Heron and Scarface. But strapped with major-label expectations, his hip-hop and R&B efforts weren't always convincing.

With the onset of family life and the gathering of war clouds, Franti has found a confident new voice, "a calling," as he puts it, and it shows. In the past his music has sometimes felt tentative or forced. No more. In his appearance at the Sage Productions benefit for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors and the Not in Our Name Project, his baritone soared. He highlighted new songs in which affirming lyrics were set to appropriately swelling chords – anthems with a nod to the '80s rock of U2, Sting, and Springsteen that he had once so ferociously reacted against. Yet the music also moves to a 21st-century beat, as during the thrilling breakdowns from beatbox technician Radioactive and percussionist Roberto Quintana. These days Franti is finding the incantatory funk to go along with the uplifting message.

The night had all the elements of a Bay Area rally. The courtyard was packed with activists pushing bumper stickers and vendors selling vegan food and crystals. Between sets, speakers, including Mumia Abu-Jamal in a taped message, extolled the family-friendly and marijuana-medicating crowd to fight President Bush's war efforts, to make the unexpected and the unlikely happen.

Chuck D had opened the evening with his loud black rock quartet, Fine Arts Militia. His bookish lectures on "Thugs vs. Rebels" and "Intelligence vs. Nonsense" were received like words from an esteemed dignitary. They closed with a rowdy cover of James Brown's "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing," setting the stage for Ozomatli, whose pan-Latino mélange of Tejano, son, cumbia, and rap began a set-long skirmish between beleaguered, fire code-reciting ushers and aisle-crowding, rhythm-happy rump shakers.

Poet Saul Williams cracked, "I'm in Berkeley, so I feel like I'm preaching to the converted. I mean, you know all the slogans!" Then he stunned the crowd silent with a performance of part of his new book-length poem, "Said the Shotgun to the Head." Ani DiFranco quavered and tremoloed through new songs inspired by 9/11, including one centered on the disconcerting image of a hawk circling over a strip mall. She closed with her own epic poem that climaxed with the line, "Aggression begets aggression, and that's a very simple lesson."

DiFranco introduced Franti by saying, "You know what I love about Michael? He always shows up in bare feet. I know what his feet look like!"

Franti answered by singing a new tune, "What I Be Is What I Be." During "You Can't Bomb the World into Peace," he invited a florist named Anthony to assemble an arrangement as he performed. As Franti sang, "Power to the peaceful," Anthony raised the flowers up into the spotlight. The set climaxed with Chuck D, DiFranco, Williams, and members of Ozomatli joining Franti onstage to jam on "Sometimes," a standout from his 2001 Stay Human album.

And then the unexpected and unlikely seemed to happen. Williams stalked across the stage, quoting P.E.'s "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos": "They wanted me for their army or whatever. Picture me giving a damn, I said 'Never!'" Chuck D beamed from stage left, then began passing bunches of roses into the crowd. And the people threw their flowers in the air like they just didn't care. (Jeff Chang)