Back from knee surgery, Michael Franti and Spearhead play New Mountain

MULTIFACETED: In addition to being a full-time musician, Michael Franti is a documentary filmmaker. His latest feature, tentatively titled 11:59, profiles three everyday people who’ve inspired his life: an Indonesian midwife who’s been an aid worker after major natural disasters; an Atlanta man with ALS who sparked the creation of Franti’s Do It for the Love Foundation; and an Indonesian surfer who works with indigenous tribes to preserve their culture. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

What do Harrison Ford and Michael Franti have in common? They both have Star Wars creator George Lucas to thank for helping start their careers. Franti was playing basketball for the University of San Francisco in the summer of 1985 when employees at Lucas’ nearby special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, approached him and his teammates. Looking for exceptionally tall people, they cast the 6-foot-6 Franti to wear a full-body costume and be part of an army of evildoers in the made-for-TV Star Wars spinoff movie Ewoks: The Battle for Endor.

“I was a Marauder, which was essentially like a big gorilla that chased Ewoks through the woods and shot them and netted them and captured them,” Franti says. “I was the shortest of the Marauders — one guy was 7-foot-5 — and all the Ewoks were little people, so I spent the whole summer hanging out with giants and little people. And from that, I was able to earn enough money to buy my first bass and my first amplifier, and that led to me falling in love with music.”

The multiplatinum recording artist and the man behind the ubiquitous 2009 hit “Say Hey (I Love You)” plays the New Mountain Amphitheater with his band, Spearhead, on Friday, June 26. The show was originally slated for Feb. 18 at The Orange Peel, but was rescheduled when Franti tore the meniscus in his left knee in late January.

“I wish I had this incredible story — like I was in a halfpipe doing a triple flip on a snowboard and I saw an orphanage on fire and I ran to put out the fire and save all the children — but unfortunately I was just on stage, standing, not even dancing really crazily,” Franti says. “It was on The Rock Boat, which is a floating festival, and I was just sort of shifting back and forth, kind of dancing and singing and playing guitar, and I just felt this pop in my knee.”

An avid runner, Franti had been experiencing pain in that joint for several weeks as well as some swelling, all of which he figures was “the accumulation of many years of being active.” After the injury, he got off the boat in Mexico and flew back to the U.S., where he did a week of shows sitting down.

“It was really a new challenge for me. I’m used to jumping on stage and running through the audience and doing all kinds of crazy stuff, so to sit down really made me get more into the storytelling of the songs and concentrate on singing in a way I hadn’t before,” Franti says.

In February, Franti traveled from his home in San Francisco to Vail, Colo., where the U.S. Ski Team doctors performed the surgery. Initially told he’d be on crutches for a week, followed by six weeks of recovery, that timetable was adjusted to six weeks on crutches and another six weeks of rehab. Disappointed but undaunted by that report, Franti committed himself to the recovery program. From the first moment possible and every day since, he’s been in the gym training and doing yoga, and he recently ran for the first time since his injury.

The hard work has his knee around 85 percent of where it was and where his right knee is. But as a result of training his whole body, Franti says that his overall health hasn’t been this good in at least 15 years. “I’d never had a serious injury before. I always imagined that once you have an injury, then it’s over — your body’s done, and it’s all downhill from there. I’ve seen people let it be that way, but my doctor was insistent. He was like, ‘The day after the surgery, you’re going to be in the rehab room and you’re going to come back from this as strong as you ever were,’ and he was right,” Franti says.

Music has also played a big part in Franti’s recovery. The first three days after his surgery, he was experiencing incredible pain, and though the painkillers did their job, they also brought about what Franti calls “a psychotic episode.” Unable to get out of his Vail hotel room with the snow falling outside, he had a claustrophobic fit and felt ready to jump out the window, all of which prompted him to go off his pain medication. Still in plenty of agony, listening to music on his headphones helped him escape, as did the company of friends, who sat around and sang and wrote songs with him.

In the process, Franti found a new groove for his forthcoming single “Once a Day” — also the name of his current tour — which took on a more celebratory feel in the company of loved ones. The track is part of a new album slated for early 2016, but Franti and Spearhead think that the song is so well-suited for summer that there’s no point waiting until next summer to put it out.

WHO: Michael Franti and Spearhead
WHERE: New Mountain Amphitheater,
WHEN: Friday, June 26, at 7 p.m. $35

About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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