For most nationally acclaimed artists, a tour stop in Aspen means playing a gig, getting a meal in a high-end restaurant, maybe some bar-hopping and some mountain sightseeing.
For Michael Franti, it means playing a show with his band Spearhead at Belly Up, yes, but also making the rounds at local nonprofits and doing some decidedly different things with his time than most musicians. The 47-year-old singer, who has a brand new album with Spearhead, plays Belly Up on Monday, Aug. 19. On Tuesday, he’s reading “Where in the World is Away,” a children’s book he wrote book about recycling, to kids at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES). Then he’s playing for a yoga class with the Aspen Yoga Society. And Tuesday night, in a private home, he plays an acoustic show to raise funds for his own nonprofit, Do it for the Love.
“Everywhere I go I do music, I do yoga, and throughout the community I meet people who are doing incredible things,” Franti told me from a tour stop in New York City.
Franti has played Aspen regularly, with shows at Belly Up and headlining Labor Day Festival and Chili Brew Fest. While becoming an Aspen staple on stage, he’s also dug into the community and volunteered his time with organizations like the Buddy Program and ACES.
Now he’s looking to the Aspen community for help with his own cause.
Tuesday’s benefit concert is the first event launching Do it for the Love, a new wish-granting foundation that gives concert experiences to people with life-threatening illnesses. He started the foundation with his partner, Sara Agah, who works as an emergency room nurse in San Francisco.
“We’ve always been thinking of ways the two of us can combine our forces to do something positive,” he says. “We find people who are in severe stages of life-threatening illness and we set them up with concert experiences. They might say, ‘I’m a big Jack Johnson fan or I really want to see Metallica,’ and we get them to have that experience.”
Franti’s conscience-driven activism has for the last two decades worked in tandem with his music. He’s played at political conventions, in war zones, and at protests like Occupy Wall Street. His songs plead for peace and social justice while fusing together rap, folk, reggae, rock and — increasingly in recent years — pop.
His new album, “All People,” released July 30, continues that tradition while taking an emphatic, unexpected step into electronic dance music. With notes of rap, disco keyboards, clap machines and dance-friendly beats, new songs like the title track and “11:59” usher Franti out of the coffee house and into the club.
“I always want to make music that people can dance to in different ways,” he says. “On this record I wanted to up the dance factor, but still have songs.”
Much of the electronic dance music dominating today’s music scene, he laments, consists of one repeated line — “Bangarang,” for instance — and a beat.
“I really wanted to have songs that had a verse and a chorus and a melody and a bridge that you could also dance to,” he explains. “So that was our intention on this record.”
Throughout his life, he’s gone to dance clubs, he says, and he points to techno forefathers Kraftwerk as a huge influence during his formative years.
“I always loved electronic music but it was never what I did,” he explains. “I always did my music based around acoustic instruments and acoustic guitar. So on this album, I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a way to combine both of those things.’”
The experiment triumphs in songs like “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like),” where he takes his familiar tools — an acoustic guitar riff, whistling sounds — and puts a dance beat under them.
The new songs have an upbeat, escapist spirit that much of his earlier work doesn’t. But for the most part, they’re still distinctively Franti’s.
“Say Goodbye,” the simplest and most straightforward of the new songs, was inspired by the Trayvon Martin shooting. Franti explains that after Martin's murder and the national outrage surrounding it, he thought about the gang violence in his neighborhood in San Francisco in the context of Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law.
“I was thinking that if everybody in my community shot somebody else, we wouldn’t have anybody left in our neighborhood,” he says. “I don’t want to see that become the law of the land.”
So, yeah, Franti may be dancing the night away, but he still has his eyes set on a better tomorrow.
Monday, Aug. 19
Belly Up Aspen
Sing-a-long and Reading at ACES
Children’s Education Fund
Tuesday, Aug. 20
Aspen Center for
Do it for the Love Foundation Benefit
Tuesday, Aug. 20