BY YVONNE ZUSEL
It was a marvelous night for both a moondance and a music festival, balmy and — most importantly — dry. Without the rain that turned Centennial Olympic Park into a mud pit for much of last year’s Sweetwater 420 Festival, and near perfect temperatures on Sunday, the festival’s last day, attendees were able to keep their attention squarely on the music — a good thing, as there were quality offerings in spades.
Acts as varied as jam band Leftover Salmon, hip hop duo Atmosphere and rock collective (and Atlanta natives) Manchester Orchestra set the stage for run the gamut main stage closers Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, Ludacris and Michael Franti & Spearhead.
Michael Franti & Spearhead: Is there an artist as earnest and bald-faced in his hope for a better world than Michael Franti? Songs such as”The Sound of Susnshine” and arguably his band’s biggest hit, “Say Hey (I Love You)” are so feel-good as to verge on the saccharine at times, especially when Franti brings kids onstage, as he did on “Say Hey” and drops platitudes like “Every day is Earth Day, because we’re all earthlings” as he did before launching into the singalong “We Are All Earthlings.”
But it would have been hard for even the most cynical of concertgoer not to soften just a little when he ventured into the audience to sing the reggae-fied “All I Want Is You” or when he talked about his ill son and how his condition, for which he’ll need a new kidney, inspired Franti to write the sweet “Once A Day.” Franti’s performance style is custom-made for a festival like Sweetwater 420, where revelers used his sunny tunes as an opportunity to dance with each other and enjoy the weather that perfectly matched his lyrics.
Ludacris: Hometown boy Chris “Ludacris” Bridges has ventured into action film territory of late with his role in the Atlanta-filmed “Fast and the Furious” franchise, but he’s managed to maintain just as much success in his first career as a rapper, as evidenced by the string of hits he pulled out — and, in most cases played just one or two verses of — during his hour-plus set.
Career fans — Luda reminded the crowd that his first major label album, “Back for the First Time,” came out 16 years ago — might have been frustrated by the lack of deep cuts or his reliance on other artists’ songs on which he contributed a verse, including DJ Khaled’s seemingly omnipresent “All I Do Is Win” and Usher’s “Yeah!.” But it was clear the majority of the Sweetwater audience came for the hits, and that’s what he played. His Southern-fried rapping on “Stand Up,” “What’s Your Fantasy” and “Moneymaker,” with an assist from hypeman Lil Fate, was a welcome reminder that Luda’s rap game is still strong, and the presence of a woman dancing on a stripper pole during one song was a reminder that he hasn’t lost any of his signature raunch.
Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals: Toward the end of Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals’ headlining set, Harper thanked the crowd for watching. “I don’t know how you heard about us, but I know it wasn’t on the radio,” Harper quipped. It’s likely true — the 2000 tune, “Steal My Kisses,” is likely the closest thing he has to a radio hit — but Harper has amassed a loyal following over the past two decades, both solo and with his band.
The recently released “Call It What It Is” is Harper’s first album with the Innocent Criminals since 2007, and the group provided impressive backing, especially on nearly 10-minute versions of “Don’t Take That Attitude to Your Grave” and “Fight For Your Mind,” during which Harper furiously played slide guitar, and “Better Way,” which saw the members of the band joining in with Doobie Brothers-style harmony.
Harper has always been a bit of a musical chameleon, and he moved from reggae-tinged tune “Finding Our Way” to the country-influenced “Diamonds on the Inside” to the political, Black Lives Matter-inspired title track from his new album, with ease. After more than 20 years, Harper is still managing to find ways to reinvent himself while keeping things fresh onstage.