Summers in Vermont boast an embarrassment of riches chief among them the idyllic grounds of Shelburne Museum. Set impossibly close to Route 7, this rolling green Mecca is a wonder of the northern world. Miles of groomed pasture stretch out to a stunning wooded horizon, where five times this season, local sponsors will land a mother ship of marquee music. And who better to pilot its inaugural, hazy June opening than goodwill emissaries Michael Franti and Spearhead?
Hailing from the Bay area, Franti has a lyrical style that is urgent, and authentically urban. But he’s traded the militant invective of his youth (when he founded the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy) for a more benevolent philosophy. “Hatred’s what got me here; love is gonna set me free,” sings the forty-something. Franti is nothing if not hopeful, framing universal issues within a healing context of joyous reggae-rock. Whether supporting New Orleans’ Ninth Ward or a birthing clinic in Bali, he does a range of work that reads like Oprah’s resume. It’s uncommon to see such philanthropy in today’s landscape, and that only adds to Franti’s appeal, particularly in activist-rich Vermont.
Early birds were treated to the inimitable Bread and Puppet, a Northeast Kingdom theater troupe that has tirelessly paraded its “subversive papier mch” for decades. The costumed players deployed slapstick and word play in an inventive (if largely ignored) attempt to galvanize peaceful insurrection. B&P’s entrance delighted, with stilt walkers and ragtime enthusiasm, but this carnivalesque folly quickly turned into socio-political indictments that felt shouty and disjointed among the beach balls and bright sun. Much of the crowd strained to hear the onstage parables and, unsurprisingly, tuned out.
All around us great thunderheads loomed like mushrooms, but life inside the festival seemed irrepressibly upbeat. Children ran untethered, Frisbees soared, and hula hoopsters ruled the hill. Ben & Jerry’s served creamy cups, Magic Hat filled thirsty throats, and HeadCount registered first-time voters. Even native sons Mike Gordon and gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina moved freely among the lounging bodies.
By 7:30, the resounding dub intro of Spearhead’s “Little Bit of Riddim” turned this breezy slope into a sonic playground. Bassist Carl Young and percussionist Manas Itiene bombed Shelburne with infectious club beats, stirring the crowd until Franti finally appeared, dreads tucked neatly into his Rasta cap. Standing six-and-a-half feet tall, the front-man had a dominating presence that drew cheers, and while his vocals at times felt strained, Franti’s undeniable enthusiasm made him magnetic. Articulate and quick-witted as a favorite teacher, he electrified each song with calls to throw our hands in the air, or to hug the ones we came with always engaging the audience. There was hardly a moment to scurry for falafel without feeling like you’d miss something.
Spearhead’s provocations were less abrasive than Bread and Puppet’s, as the band couched its insistent messages in cheerful grooves (“Love is too big for just one nation, and God is too big for just one religion!”). The charismatic Franti mixed politics with playfulness, musing that the true barometer of success isn’t a Grammy, but having an ice cream named in one’s honor. And, while the free scoops were popular indeed, the roots-reggae upstroke of “Hey Now Now” was a crowd favorite. Franti’s strikingly clear delivery and smooth flow encouraged mass sing-along, as rhymes moved effortlessly from stage to field to stage again. “The riddim of the music make me feelin’ irie!” Even the uninitiated boogied as Young and Itiene kept the place thumping. If you saw me getting down, chances are I saw you, too.
Snaking through dance hall (“Rude Boys”), world beat (“Hello Bonjour”) and flat-out funk (“Hey World”), the versatile duo of keyboardist Raliegh Neal and guitarist Dave Shul easily rolled through reggae riffs and rock chords, betraying their years as session players. Still, for all the flashes of Outkast, De la Soul and Matisyahu, it was introspective acoustic works such as Franti’s “One Step Closer to You” and the touching Itiene duet “Is Love Enough?” that shone as true originals.
Arms raised triumphantly, the pulsing crowd never tired, as Spearhead returned for a fistful of encores. An echo-laden “Light Up Ya Lighter” transformed Shelburne’s grassy amphitheater into a sea of flaming Zippos and luminous cellphones, while “Yell Fire” threatened to space out the joint with Neal’s extraterrestrial synth. (I half-hoped Gordo would take the stage as a surprise accomplice.) In the end, Franti and Spearhead proved inexorable a phenomenon best enjoyed live. Songs that rang a little hokey on the skeptic’s iPod felt altogether alive under a citrus sunset, surrounded by throngs of happy humans. Children rode atop their parents’ shoulders, college kids got jiggy, and Franti left us giddy with love. The dreadlocked ambassador found a thousand kindred spirits in our little independent republic and, for at least one evening, the world seemed flush with hope.