By Michael Hamersly
Michael Franti won’t just be happy to take the stage Tuesday, Aug. 18 when the Saturday Night Rebel Rockers concert hits town; he’ll be thrilled to be alive.
Franti — frontman for Spearhead, which along with Counting Crows and Augustana headlines the show at the newly refurbished Bayfront Park in Miami — underwent emergency surgery July 23 for a burst appendix, forcing his band to cancel 12 tour dates. An infection delayed his recovery, and Franti wasn’t able to perform for more than two weeks.
“I’m incredibly grateful,” Franti said by phone from his home in San Francisco. “I feel like I have a new opportunity to live, and I’m taking advantage of every second of it.”
Before the surgery, Franti had felt ill for about six weeks. The pain got so bad he eventually stayed in bed all day, then practiced yoga before performing at night.
“Michael almost died,” said Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz, who grew up with Franti in the Bay area, where they played basketball together.
“Literally, the doctor told him he missed it by about a day. And we couldn’t figure out what it was. He played for like two weeks on a burst appendix. I couldn’t believe it.
“They were getting ready to go to Calgary that night after this one gig, and my tour manager and I were like, `You can’t go to Canada. It’s a day off, and you’ve got to go to the hospital.’ And thank God he did, because if he had gotten on a plane, I don’t know what the altitude would have done. It horrifies me to even think about it.”
On a conventional tour, one band dropping out would simply mean extended sets for the remaining performers. But the concept of this tour is different: The three groups jam together for most of the evening. You’re sure to hear earnest, melodic Crows hits such as Mr. Jones, Round Here and Accidentally in Love and Spearhead’s politically conscious, world beat-reggae favorite Hole In the Bucket and the new Hey World (Don’t Give Up Version) and Say Hey (I Love You). But pinning down exactly what will happen onstage is impossible.
“We play around and change every night, asking each other what we wanna do, even adding things we don’t know how to play,” said Duritz with a laugh. “If worse comes to worse, we just put the lyrics on the front of the monitor. We do have a set list, but within it, songs get reinvented while they’re going. Off the cuff, we just come up with things. And no one’s afraid — everyone just kind of dives in.”
Maybe fear isn’t involved, but there are worrisome moments.
“This collaborative tour concept has been one that has brought a lot of musical growth as well as a lot of anxiety, as in, `What the hell are we doing?’ ” Franti said.
“We started the tour by rehearsing for a week and learning about 25 of each other’s songs. So maybe on one song, my band is backing Adam from the Crows and on another couple songs, his band will back me, and there will be a collaboration between the three of us singers from the bands doing something acoustically. So it’s this wonderful mixture of music with no set breaks. It’s just one show.”
With Say Hey, Franti scored the biggest hit of his two-decade-plus career (his other bands include The Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy).
“It came out last fall, and it kind of caught on with noncommercial radio, but when the winter came around, everybody at the radio stations were kind of like, `This is a really summery song, and let’s shelve it, and we’ll play it next spring or whatever.’
“And then a couple pop stations, every time they played it, the phones just lit up, and so it kind of become this beach anthem for the summer. It’s been a trip.
“We’ve never had this song that’s had this kind of pop appeal. We were joking the other day in the hospital that the week our record goes into the Top 40 for the first time, I almost die.”
Predictably, Spearhead’s absence limited what the Crows and Augustana could accomplish musically.
“I can’t wait for Michael to come back, because we’ve gotten really good at doing this with two bands, and when they get here, it’ll just turn back into Technicolor,” Duritz said in a pre-reunion interview.
“We are one big, 18-person animal, and missing part of it sucks. To be honest with you, I don’t wanna go play shows by myself anymore, with our band. I want to play with these bands together.”
Counting Crows found explosive fame in the early ’90s with the breakout hit Mr. Jones. Sudden success totally unhinged Duritz, who struggled with depression and was diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. He sounds more accepting of his celebrity today.
“I didn’t understand what the hell was happening back then,” he said. “I was this shy person who suddenly was very, very, very exposed and famous, and uniquely stupid-looking. I watched my life become a complete work of fiction over the years. I watched newspapers report relationships with people who to this day I’ve never met. And I’ve just come to realize that that’s what it is. There’s an entertainment world out there that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual entertainment itself.”
A NEW ENERGY
The experience of the three bands performing together has reenergized Duritz.
“We’re so taught that this one kind of music’s cool, and this other kind of music sucks, because radio and magazines play it that way,” he said.
“But musicians love music, and if you put them all together on the stage, they’re dying to play together. And people don’t have a lot of money these days, and I don’t want them to pay a whole lot of money to see not enough of us.
“I haven’t counted the exact time that we play, but I know I’m there when the show starts, and I’m there when the show ends. You’re gonna get a night of music, and nobody’s getting ripped off here.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Saturday Night Rebel Rockers Traveling Circus and Medicine Show
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 18
Where: Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Tickets: LiveNation.com; $31-$66, four-pack $85
Details: Starring Counting Crows, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Augustana