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Paul Mann: Jack Johnson Grows Up

Matured musician ends current tour with triumphant, sold-out shows at the Santa Barbara Bowl

Jack Johnson brought his feel-good road show to the Santa Barbara Bowl last week for two sold-out nights.

Johnson, who has become one of the most successful pop stars in the country, has headlined nearly every major music festival in the nation. So it was no big surprise at the solid turnout for the hometown hero and master of California beach cruising music. In fact, the Santa Barbara shows had sold out shortly after they went on sale — in April.

The Oct. 13 show began early, in typical Jack Johnson-style, with an impromptu acoustic jam in the garden just inside the venue. Johnson and longtime friend G. Love did a short preconcert jam, before most music fans had any idea what was happening. After a few quick songs, Johnson bolted up the hill with his newest offspring in tow, just as a bewildered crowd began to jam the walkway.

The stage show began right on schedule with an early opening set by miniature Malaysian singer Zee Avi. The tiny singer with a big voice has become a recording sensation, with a large Asian fan base, on the heels of her debut self-titled album. Her music was discovered on YouTube, and found its way to Johnson’s record company, with the help of Patrick Keeler of Raconteurs fame.

Avi paints an interesting musical canvas with her pleasantly soothing voice, wrapped around sounds from many musical genres. When playing her ukulele, she channels the sounds of the Pacific Islands. But with her band, the sound blends Indy pop and jazz to create interesting textures. In a true testament to the power of the Internet, her music has become popular purely by the will of her fast-rising fan base. The early bird crowd responded politely to her sweet sounds.

As the afternoon light faded to twilight, G. Love and Special Sauce hit the stage. G. Love has been making his own unique brand of hip hop-infused Philadelphia blues with his group and on solo projects since the mid 1990s. Always a great live performer and consummate entertainer, the musician seems like he could be at home all at once as a street musician with a harmonica, or a band leader in front of a large festival crowd.

G. Love has become forever entwined in Johnson’s career. He first featured Johnson on his 1999 album, Philadelphonic, and played a version of “Rodeo Clowns” long before the world knew of the California surfer musician phenomenon who would be become so popular. Johnson opened for G. Love on his earliest tours. Now G. Love records on Brushfire Records, Johnson’s own label, and frequently opens for the musical prodigy he helped discover.

With a multimedia montage of images projected behind him, Jack Johnson treated his Santa Barbara neighbors to a two-hour show at the Santa Barbara Bowl.
With a multimedia montage of images projected behind him, Jack Johnson treated his Santa Barbara neighbors to a two-hour show at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Click here for additional photos. (L. Paul Mann photo)

G. Love and Special Sauce create a funky, blues-drenched live show that has many of the elements that makes New Orleans music such a great live sound. The crowd greeted the band with an enthusiastic response throughout their hourlong set.

As a cool October evening fell on the Bowl, Johnson emerged right on schedule to begin his triumphant two-hour set. It was no surprise that his presence was a catalyst for a vociferous, adulate crowd since the local surfer still maintains a house in Montecito and is considered a hometown musical hero. But what was a surprise was how much his music and live performance have matured to new and more intricate levels of sound.

Johnson has sold more than 8 million records in less than a decade, largely as a result of his innocuous, soft-rock sound. His simplistic approach to music with its feel-good laid-back sound, endeared him to a huge worldwide fan base. At the same time, fans of more complex music criticized his sound as monotonous and uninspired. In fact, his live shows over the years have been lessons in minimalism, both in musical style and substance.

But with the release of his most recent album and his subsequent follow-up tour, a more complex and mature musician has emerged. Johnson now spends extensive time on the electric guitar playing more intricate chords and riffs than in the past. His band has also followed his more upbeat sound. His drummer now sports a complete drum set and uses it to create a much more complex back-beat than in times past. His keyboard player, Zach Gill, borrowed from Santa Barbara-based band ALO, plays extensive honky-tonk solos in the new work. Even Johnson’s bass player takes on a new, deeper and richer sound in his live performance.

To be sure, Johnson still pulls out the acoustic guitar for some of his early, simpler hit songs. But his newer, throatier material provides a perfect juxtaposition to the older classics, painting a much more interesting and varied live portrait of a performance. Johnson’s use of multimedia in his live shows also continues to morph into new and interesting directions. A large panoramic screen was painted in layers of environmental colors and images, interspersed with live inserts of the band and the crowd. The ever-evolving backdrop created a living link to the live performance in a unique and artistic way.

A steady stream of musical guests also added additional layers of musical texture to the evening’s show. In addition to Avi on her ukulele, guests included Dan Lebowitz, ALO’s guitar player, among others.

But it was the extended appearance, near the end of the show, by G. Love that was the highlight and it brought the evening full circle, back to the impromptu garden jam. Singing, dancing and playing guitar and harmonica, the musical maestro reveled in his performance with his former protege-turned-pop icon.

Fans of jam music may dismiss Johnson’s music as being too simplistic, but they may want to give his newer music another listen. They just may be surprised at how much the surfer-boy sound has matured. He may grow up to be a true jam musician yet.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.

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