POSTED: 07:19 a.m. HST, Aug 02, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 07:38 a.m. HST, Aug 02, 2014
Wending my way through the throng of smiling fans departing the Waikiki Shell after Jack Johnson's Friday night concert, I had to ask myself: What's Johnson's secret?
He's handsome, but not movie-star handsome; musically talented, but no Robert Plant or Jimmy Page. And his shows don't have a lot of the energy typically expected at rock shows — little to no braggadocio, bluesy sorrow or full-steam sexuality.
What Johnson does have is a particularly intense and benevolent form of niceness.
On stage, the vibe Johnson puts out is happy and mellow. Casually sharing the stage and spotlight with his musical friends, he's in charge, but for the good of all. Guitar-tech Boogie gets a shout-out and a solo. Opening act Michael Kiwanuka comes back for the encore.
And if it were to be told that Kiwanuka went surfing with his cell phone that morning? No worries; everything's still cool. "We're going out again tomorrow," Johnson says, smiling.
Johnson serves as the center of attention primarily because his fans make him that. His songs don't demand that you look at him, or admire him — they're about things like the fun he had back in the day as a Kahuku High School student, starting up a band called Stony Dogfish; or how he fell in love with, adores and is "better together" with his wife; or how he needs to tend his garden.
It's easy to feel good when Johnson's on stage, especially in Hawaii, because all proceeds from every ticket sold for his shows in the islands go to the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, planting school gardens, teaching kids about recycling and the environment, and boosting environmental programs.
The more you break it down, the better he seems — till you start to wonder not why Johnson resonates with fans, but why there aren't more musical acts creating this kind of quotidian poetry about good people, gardens, high-school sweethearts and romantic partnerships.
The songs make you feel good and make you want to do good. I'm guessing that's his secret.
JOHNSON'S SHOW at the Shell on Friday was the first of two sold-out appearances for the musician and his band.
The music was loosely funky, with tributes thrown in to hippie-era jam-meisters Neil Young and the Grateful Dead, bopper Buddy Holly and punk-rockers The Ramones. There was a little bit of reggae and a big helping of blue-eyed soul.
On a couple of occasions, Johnson and crew forgot a lyric or a musical bit, but it seemed in keeping with the casual makeup of the show and setlist. Songs morphed into other songs, or Johnson would break in the middle of a jam and tell a story, then pick up the music in a new direction.
Wearing three-day stubble (or maybe just one-day stubble — Johnson told me he grows a beard pretty quickly), a nondescript beige T-shirt, jeans and slippers, Johnson was sincere and upbeat throughout.
He sang or excerpted from "Better Together," "Banana Pancakes" and "Good People" from 2005 album "In Between Dreams," "Bubbletoes" and "Mudfootball" from 2000 album "Brushfire Fairytales." He enlisted the audience to whistle along with the delightful "I Got You" from 2013 album "From Here To Now To You."
And his quotes from other bands — "Not Fade Away" by Buddy Holly via the Grateful Dead and a bit from "I Wanna be Your Boyfriend" by The Ramones — were also telling, referencing loyalty and love in Johnson's sunny, shambling way.
Bass player Merlo Podlewski took the lead to rap, and Zach Gill put funk and verve into the set with his electric piano playing, and pumped-up melodica; this is something Johnson and band have been doing on stage for years now, but it still feels fresh.
When Paula Fuga stepped up to sing on "Give Voice," a reggae song they co-wrote with Culver City Dub Collective, the music soared.
One of the most dynamic songs in the set was an encore cover of Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend," including Kiwanuka and Kiwanuka's band. With its dreamlike pacing and conflicted lyrics, it stood in contrast to Johnson's more singleminded approach, but also showed that he can own that kind of classic rock when he wants to.
If people embrace a musician because he embodies a characteristic they respond to, it's my theory that people love Johnson because they feel that some of the sunlight embodied in his gosh-darn niceness shines down on them when they listen.
Next thing you know, you might start to think that more people should just plain be like Johnson — engaged with nature, competent, focused on family and generous with resources for the greater good.
Elizabeth Kieszkowski is editor of TGIF, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s weekly arts and entertainment section. Reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.