A Michael Franti concert doesn’t start with the curtains rising and him striding out from backstage to rapturous applause. He usually gets to the stage from the other direction – walking through the crowd, stopping to say hi and maybe hug a few friendly people before he climbs up to the microphone.

It’s a bonding thing, a way of knocking down the wall between the performer and the audience that he learned in one of his earliest bands, The Beatnigs, who travelled across America playing in every punk rock club that would have them. Although his music is much more mellow now, he’s kept that one element of the punk spirit alive.

“The stage and the audience, there was no barrier there,” Franti recalls. “Myself and a lot of other artists in punk rock bands at the time would jump into the crowd, we’d sing songs from the crowd, and I always loved that feeling. I still carry that DIY spirit, that there should be no division between the stage and the audience. These days I have a headset microphone and my guitar and I play songs on the top balcony. Sometimes I start the show in the lobby. We put little boxes out in the audience in different places so I can get up and play on top of little boxes in some of the venues. I love being out in the crowd. It’s also kind of cool to look back at the stage and hear and see my band [Spearhead], what they look like from the audience.”

Franti’s not the only one who gets up close and personal with the audience. Spearhead’s guitarist, bassist and even the drummer get out there, thanks to portable hand drums, but the keyboard player, says Franti, “sadly is hampered by the size of that instrument.” This reminds Franti of an anecdote from his time in the group he formed after The Beatnigs: hip hop rabble-rousers The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy. “We did this tour opening up for U2,” he says. “It was the Zoo TV tour, and it was the first tour with all these huge video screens and flying cars and all this really amazing visual stuff. One day I talked to Bono and I was like, ‘Man, this show looks fucking amazing.’ And he’s like…” – you’ll have to imagine Michael Franti’s Bono impersonation, but it’s pretty great – “‘I know, Michael, we spent $70 million on the production and I’ll never get to see it!’”

Like U2, Franti’s music has changed a lot over the years. The Public Enemy-style hip hop of The Disposable Heroes gave way to Spearhead’s acoustic jams vibe, soul and roots, but his activist streak remained in songs like ‘Crime To Be Broke In America’ from 1994’sHome. An indictment of the US prison system, the song inspired someone to ask Franti if he’d ever played a concert in prison, like Johnny Cash. He hadn’t, but the idea stuck with him.

When he finally did get to play that show at California’s Folsom Prison in 2005, he says, “All these guys in the prison were like, ‘We don’t want to hear songs about how the prison system sucks. We want to hear songs about how much we miss our girlfriends. We want to hear songs about forgetting these concrete walls that we’re behind.’ I started realising that music works in different ways. Yeah, you can go out there and – to borrow a phrase from my buddy Zack [de la Rocha] – rage against the machine, but there’s also ways that music works with the heart. Sometimes – usually, in fact – you see more progress moving people’s hearts than you do moving votes and Parliament or Congress. That’s how I’ve changed over the years.”

Franti had a similar experience when he travelled to the Middle East, a trip that was documented in his documentaryI Know I’m Not Alone. In Iraq, audiences reacted when he sang anti-war anthems. “‘You come from America. You’re bombing our country. How dare you have the gall to sit here and sing a song against war when you’re from the country that’s bombing us?’ They were like, ‘Sing us songs that make us cry, laugh, dance, forget about the situation that we’re in.’ It’s not to say that I don’t still [write political songs], I’ve got songs on this new record like ‘11:59’ or ‘Earth From Outer Space’. I directly address things; social issues, environmental issues, political issues. But I think that music is best when it reaches the emotions rather than just the thoughts and ideas.”

Franti has started an organisation called the Do It For The Love Foundation to share those emotional connections with the people who most need it – helping children with severe disabilities, injured veterans and people suffering from life-threatening illnesses to attend live concerts and have backstage meet-and-greets with their favourite musicians.

“People turn up at the show and are like, ‘I’ve got a short time left to live but I’m here with my family and we’re having this amazing experience. We’re crying together, we’re laughing, we’re dancing and it might be the last time we ever go to a concert.’ I’d rather create that experience than just be going onstage every night telling the system to ‘fuck off’.”

That’s a laudable thing, but perhaps embracing positivity in his music might alienate the fans the Franti picked up as an angry young man in California, railing against injustices. Franti hopes not, and he tells a story about his very first concert, with a high school band called The Casual Tees, to explain why.

“We played out in the quad on the school campus and we had one amplifier and we put everything through it. We put the bass and the guitar and the vocals through the same amp – and it sounded like it. But we had a really great time and I remember seeing the first three or four kids get up to dance to our music and I was like, ‘I could get used to this. This is fun.’ Ever since that time I’ve always tried to remember that same feeling that I had – not only with that band, but as I’ve toured later with other bands. I try and remember the early shows that we had and the first people that came to your shows. I always want to grow with the music and I want the music to change, but you always want the first people who came to your shows to still like it. You think back, ‘Would the first 50 people at our concert like this record?’”

Franti has come a long way since The Casual Tees (“I think our flyers were better than our music,” he says) and this year he’ll be marking 20 years with Spearhead. But they’ll be celebrating in a low-key way.

“Me and the guys in the band will probably have a beer, sit down and say, ‘Hey, that was cool! It’s been 20 years, let’s go onstage and play tonight.’”

Franti only realised how long his current band has been together when Carl Young, who plays bass, pointed it out. “While we were sitting on the bus the other night Carl mentioned, ‘It’s my birthday and I remember I joined the band right when my birthday was, so it’s been 19 years now that we’ve been on the road.’ We both looked at each other and had a bit of an emotional moment and then I said, ‘You know what? When I think back on it, this time that we’re having right now is the most fun that we’ve ever had.’”

Michael Franti plays with Sheppard atMetro Theatre onTuesday April 15.

Also appearing alongside John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band, Devendra Banhart, India.Arie, Joss Stone, Jake Bugg, Passenger and many more at Byron Bay Bluesfest, Thursday April 17 to Monday April 21.

All Peopleout now through EMI.

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