Hip hop visionary and the crooning slider 

Stay Human, Michael Franti

For all I know, Michael Franti has never stepped foot in Missoula. Still, my experiences in the Garden City and of the righteous dude and leader of the band Spearhead are intimately intertwined. My first visit to Missoula came in the summer of ’92, on my way from California to Boston. Although I had lived in the Bay Area for five years, I had never heard Franti’s music with the San Francisco-based Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.

On the road several hours east of Missoula, I busied myself with poring over my travelling buddy Mike’s collection of tapes. Not much of a rap fan (even though I saw a slammin’ Beastie Boys/Run DMC double bill as a senior in high school), I had passed over the Disposables’ tape several times. Finally flipping through the liner notes of Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury, my attitude towards Franti and the boys did a complete 360 when I noticed that, included in the “Inspirators & Conspirators” section was Tim Hardaway, then a star point guard for the Golden State Warriors. These days, admitting you’re a Warriors fan is an act worthy of great sympathy, but back then, thanks largely to Hardaway, the W's were an up-and-coming and highly entertaining squad. And I should know, ’cause I had watched probably 85 percent of their games the previous season.

So I took note at the mention of one of my favorite players, and popped in the Disposables’ tape. I was anything but disappointed at Franti’s politically-charged, insightful, and incisive dissection of the dominant paradigm, backed by a hard-edged, groovy backbeat. “Television, the Drug of the Nation” and “Socio-Genetic Experiment” remain gems worthy of elevating Franti to the status of legend. By the time I returned to Missoula the following summer, seemingly for good, I had taken in an amazing Disposables concert in London, and had the entire album tattooed into my cranium and firmly planted at the top of my personal play list.

Fast forward eight years, and Franti is up to the same old tricks. The recently-released third album by his current band, Spearhead, marks a return for Franti to the level of political dialogue that marked the lone Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy album. (Don’t get me wrong: Spearhead’s first two albums, Home and Chocolate Supa Highway, were also political, just less so. Certainly, Franti—who has appeared at anti-WTO rallies in Seattle, trainings sponsored by the Ruckus Society, and other events in support of bad-ass causes—has not taken a break from political work.)

With Spearhead, Franti has dabbled quite a bit in Motown-inspired grooves, and with great success. Stay Human is a funky, booty-shakin’ album. Incidentally, Franti again refers to the Golden State Warriors in “Every Single Soul:” “It makes me want to go Sprewell/every time I see my friends locked in jail,” sings Franti, referring to the player who tried to choke coach PJ Carlesimo before both made overdue and unceremonious departures. Stay Human is also somewhat of a rock opera, although the story is basically carried by imaginary radio broadcasts interspersed between the songs. The broadcasts focus on the planned execution of Sister Fatima, an African-American healer and community activist who is convicted—wrongly, of course—of murdering a married couple. The reference to Philadelphia journalist turned death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal is blatant, but the message is powerful regardless.

While I could go on for hours about Franti and Spearhead (and about the Golden State Warriors, but I’ll spare you that), it’s time to cut to the chase. I’m certainly glad that Franti has visited me again in Missoula with a release as fine as Stay Human.

Sky Like a Broken Clock, Kelly Joe Phelps.

If Michael Franti is an important voice for his political vision and his willingness to tell it like it is, then Kelly Joe Phelps is an important voice for another reason: his voice. His singing might have taken a bit of a back seat to his searing slide-guitar work on his first three albums, but Phelps has taken a different approach on Sky Like a Broken Clock. He’s put the slide away, and the main beneficiary has been his crooning, which has admirably stepped forward to accept center stage. Sure, Phelps’ guitar work is still excellent, but it fits nicely on Sky with some sparse drumming and laid-back stand-up bass work. The album was tracked live—with no overdubs—by three musicians who had never played together before stepping into the studio to work on Sky.

The result sounds anything but thrown-together. One of the gems of the album is “Clementine,” which is a perfect example of the way that Phelps paints but part of a picture and allows the listener to fill in the rest of the story: “She is asleep there, upon the floor. Troubled by visions of strangers that stand in her door. Holding flags of another land. Language she can’t understand. All she wants for Christmas is another glass of wine. My little darling Clementine.” On the more upbeat tunes on the album, such as “Sally Ruby,” Phelps employs a piercing falsetto that nicely complements his silty grumblings. This effect is evocative of Ben Harper, and equally entertaining. With songs this mysterious and singing this sweet, my guess is that you won’t miss the slide guitar.

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