Is Jack Johnson still a huge concert draw in 2018?
That was the question that was on my mind as I made the rainy drive out to the Austin 360 Amphitheater Wednesday night. A spring storm had delayed the doors opening, but no rain or thunder was going to stop me from seeing the former professional surfer-turned soft rock environmental philanthropist.
SEE PHOTOS: Jack Johnson at the Austin360 Amphitheater
It’s here where I should probably mention that I was basically pre-destined to like this show, barring any excessive preaching from the stage or some other decidedly not-Jack Johnson shenanigans.
The last time I saw Jack Johnson in concert, it was 2007. My family was stationed in Hawai'i. And if there are any three albums that are permanently seared into my memory, they’re Johnson’s first three releases: “Brushfire Fairytales,” On and On” and the one that got him famous outside of the Aloha State, “In Between Dreams.”
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Dude was inescapable on O’ahu in the early aughts. Those songs were the background music for so many of the block parties, cookouts, camping trips and beach days of my youth. Simple songs that reminded me of a great experience in my life.
On the night before the movers came to pack up all of our stuff for an overseas move to South Korea, we decided it would be a good idea to see Johnson host his Kōkua Festival, a benefit show that donated proceeds to the Kōkua Hawai'i Foundation, an environmental non-profit that Johnson started.
We saw him perform at the Waikiki Shell in Honolulu. Wikipedia tells me that Eddie Vedder, Boom Gaspar, Ernie Cruz, Jr., Matt Costa and The Girlas opened for him, but all I remember is Vedder getting drunk on red wine and growling his way through “Better Man.”
I was 15 years old, and that show was the first time I was exposed to marijuana in a public place. Honolulu Police Department officers aimlessly walked the lawn, casually confiscating joints and placing them into large painters’ buckets while my father silently fumed. When the night became late, we left somewhere in the middle of Johnson’s set so we could get up early enough to meet the movers. I remember hearing “Flake” as we hiked back to the truck, ready to start a new chapter in our lives in a few short weeks. It was a brief experience, but a memorable one.
All of that is to say, I knew as I was driving out to Del Valle, I was looking for a familiar rush of nostalgia, and I didn’t care if it rained or not. But would it live up to the memories I had built up in my mind of those five years of Hawai'i?
I shouldn’t have worried: the rain let up right as I pulled up to the parking lot. The throng of people making their way into the amphitheater was much larger than I thought would be there, especially after a bit of a rain delay. Maybe they were looking to relive some Johnson memories as well; it looks like the last time he played Austin was at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2004.
I got my answer on the nostalgia front right at the beginning of Johnson’s set. He’s 42 but didn’t look like he’d aged at all. Backed by his usual band members Zach Gill (piano, accordion), Adam Topol (drums) and Merlo Podlewski (bass), Johnson jumped right into “You and Your Heart,” the first single from 2010’s “To The Sea.”
The following two hours featured songs from all of Johnson’s albums, plus a few covers. Johnson’s understated, mellow vibe extended into his stage banter, when he mentioned the weather early on (”My wife told me I should’ve checked the 10-day forecast”) and when he mentioned that a few of his songs were inspired by funny observations from his children.
And, for those keeping score at home— you bet Johnson took the chance to play his little ditty about a weed-fueled poker game with Willie Nelson in Nelson’s adopted home city.
Playing almost 30 songs in a set could have been a slog, but Gill, Topol and Podlewski provided some subtle updates to old songs to make them all blend seamlessly into each other, creating a medley effect. This was especially present on the four-song run of “My Mind Is For Sale,” “Rodeo Clowns,” “Good People” and “You Can’t Control It.” That might have been a thematic decision as well— those four songs are about as political as Johnson gets in song, with whimsical, upbeat tunes, but cynical and questioning lyrics built in.
And speaking of politics, while the lines “I don't care for your paranoid ‘Us against them’ walls/I don't care for your careless ‘Me first, gimme gimme’ appetite at all” from “My Mind is For Sale” got one of the biggest crowd reactions of the night, most of the non-musical messaging came from the merch booth, where patrons could buy re-usable pint bottles and water bottles. You could even get points in the Jack Johnson app for taking a picture of your recycling or compost at the merch booth, too.
By the end of the night, with lots of light from the moon high in the sky (and lots of marijuana smoke in the air), Johnson ended his traditional set with his opening band, Fruition. His last song of the whole night was “Better Together,” one of his most popular, and here, a mission statement: No matter what’s going on in the world, people are better together.
In 2018, that may seem simple, but that’s Johnson’s deal, and it’s why people go to see him. For a few hours, there’s an opportunity to escape to Banana Pancakes and Mudfootball and Bubble Toes, and a chance to create memories in the process.
Or remember old ones.
“You and Your Heart”
“Sitting, Waiting, Wishing”
“My Mind Is For Sale”
“You Can’t Control It”
“If I Had Eyes”
“No Other Way”
“If I Could”
“Breakdown” (With Fruition)
“Big Sur”/“Bohemian Rhapsody” medley (With Fruition)
“Shot Reverse Shot”
“Not Fade Away”/“Mudfootball” medley (The Crickets cover)
“Do You Remember”
“Willie Got Me Stoned”
“A Pirate Looks at 40” (Jimmy Buffett cover)