Tuesday, January 06, 2015

String Cheese Incident, Spearhead live at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, December 28, 2002 (12 years later)

This is another retrospective review, and it's appropriate for kicking off the new year because it was part of a series of New Year's Eve shows from a band that's well known for them.  Unlike my review of Spiritualized twenty years on, I attended this show.  It was almost exactly twelve years ago.

I wrote down my thoughts about this show after it happened.  They're in an old notebook that I have to find one of these days.  I haven't seen that review or heard the recording since the day of the show.

Spearhead were the opening act and that was a welcome surprise that I didn't know about when I went along with the idea to get tickets to this show.  I think they were announced as the opening act only a few days before the show.  I remember thinking to myself that no matter what happens, I will get to see a really good band that I'd been curious about seeing for some time.

About a year ago I bought The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprosy's first and only proper album, "Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury".  It was a bargain bin purchase and it's an album that barely remembered today.  It couldn't have been more out of place than it was -- a hip-hop inflected album by a California crew but with no connection to G-funk or gangsta rap or any of other West Coast trends of the time.  Instead, it combined the Bomb Squad's kitchen sink mix of beats and chaos, the swagger of industrial music, and Michael Franti's politically charged lyrics.   Sonically, it still sounds fresh because it's a blueprint that was never duplicated.  Nobody even tried to duplicate it, including Franti.  He decided to grab his guitar and reach out to the freaky people of the world instead.

Around the time of this gig, I saw a Much Music interview with Franti (can't recall the interviewer) and they were casually wandering the streets of downtown Toronto.  This was not altogether unusual.  Unlike MTV and many other journalistic outlets, MM was never about shutting its guests in a sterile studio, they always tried to integrate themselves into their urban surroundings by letting the crowds get up close and personal to their ground floor studio, staging events in the parking lot by the side door, and so on.  Franti wasn't the only artist to be interviewed outside Much Music building, but as far as escaping the confinement of the studio goes,  to absorb the energy of the streets, I'm sure he wouldn't have had it any other way.

Anyway, they were walking the streets and he was recognized by a passerby.  I can't even recall it they were male or female, let's say it was a male.  What happened next was remarkable.  They had a short conversation and the fan became a bit flustered in trying to communicate his feelings.  You're an inspiration, keep doing what you're doing, don't change, and just when the fan seemed to lose track of he wanted to articulate, Franti grabbed hold of him and embraced him like one would embrace a close friend or family member that was about to board a plane for a long journey, not to return for many months.  Except this was a total stranger from the street.  The hug made everything OK. Celebrities have to find ways to detach from their fans all the time, there's a fine line between saying you're a big fan and getting too nosy, outstaying your welcome, and making the encounter uncomfortable for everyone involved.  This fan wasn't like that.  He wanted to briefly say his piece and let Franti continue on.  Franti could see that.  He made the encounter special by embracing him and making the fan feel like a true friend.  After a few brief parting words, he continued down the street and went on with the interview.

This kind of connection between an artist and their fans is incredibly rare.  Of course there are plenty of friendly musicians who go out of their way to interact with their fans.  How many of them hug random people on the street?  Franti connects with people not only because he's a talented musician with something to say, but because he's nice.  He's so nice that he can connect with people without even trying.  Cultivating a stage persona and connecting with fans is hard work for most people, and it should be.  For Franti it's not work.  He can connect to people without even trying.  Obviously part of it has to do with the types of fans he attracts -- jam band, outdoor festival types who are open and welcoming people to begin with.  But Franti has perfected the art of being nice better than just about anybody.

Even after all these years, Spearhead's set from that night in '02 immediately brought a smile of familiarity to my face.  The music was infectious and fun from the first song to the last.  At the time I was wondering whether SCI could top their set, and listening to these recordings now, I'm wondering the same thing all over again.

The litmus test for SCI rears its head right away.  The first song, "Johnny Cash", features the chorus "Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash, don't smoke hash".  Even without hearing the song, if that seems like a funny and amusing chorus to you, then you'll probably like the Cheese.  But if you find it an adolescent stab at humour that came out of an afternoon of reefer madness that you're glad you weren't a part of, then you probably won't.  What does that line even mean?  Are they telling Johnny Cash to stay away from hash, or are they informing us that he doesn't smoke it?  (It's the latter, which is clearer from the rest of the lyrics)

The first set is breezy and energetic, highlighted by a cracking version of "Under African Skies" and a deliciously groovy "Born on the Wrong Planet" featuring Michael Franti and other members of Spearhead.  Seeing this live, I couldn't believe how quickly the 70+ minute set flew by, and was even disappointed for the break in momentum. Hearing it today, my reactions are largely the same.  

The second set is a different story.  It's slower pace and more jammy style is designed to cultivate a different sort of mood, and for me that mood was exhaustion.  I was about ready to crash, partly a comedown from the energy of the first set, and partly a physiological comedown, probably from having a few too many drinks earlier in the day.  During the encore, there's a short delay as the band tries to figure out what they're going to play.  Fifteen minutes of jamming later, the song abruptly ends and it's time to go home. The gig is over, and it's as if they were punching a clock, got in the two and a half hours that their fans expect, and called it a night.  The second set is inoffensive enough as a relaxing listen during my daily commute, but live I was straining to enjoy it.  I wanted to get the most out of the SCI experience, but by the end I was well past ready for it to finally end.  

Live recordings of these shows, plus hundreds of others by both band, are readily available online. My copies, courtesy of the Live Music Archive:


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