Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, December 24, 2001

Jack Johnson performed with laid-back charm Friday night at World Cafe.

Audience puts damper on
Jack Johnson’s musical vibe

Review by Gary C.W. Chun

Jack Johnson finally made good his promise to come back to his Hawaii home, not in his usual guise as surfer and surf filmmaker, but as a performing musician.

Surrounded onstage by his musical buddies Merlo and Adam Topol (and several lit sticks of incense), Johnson acquitted himself well Friday night with his generally quiet, jammy grooves, even though his large audience was, for the most part, inattentive, talking throughout his performance at a volume annoying enough to override the music.

Still, there were enough pockets of young fans who drove from his family's hometown of Haleiwa to give the self-effacing, handsome young man some needed support. Even though there is little variation throughout his laid-back musical lopings, Johnson's music is funky enough and pleasant enough to have a winning low-key appeal. And that's not just with the local crowd, but with a growing national audience buoyed by the support of his friend Ben Harper.

Johnson's songs are filled with images of traveling and longings for home, as well as gentle, syncopated phrases about the nomadic life he's led. During the times that the audience actually turned their attention to Johnson, they would sing along with some of the more popular tunes from his "Brushfire Fairytales" album -- songs like "Fortunate Fool," "Bubble Toes" and "Mudfootball." His musings have an insinuating charm to them.

Other than that, his newer, unrecorded songs (including one directly inspired by the Haleiwa surfer lifestyle) were nearly lost in the general club hubbub -- which is a shame because he and his band were riding that perfect musical vibe, albeit in not the most dynamic way. It didn't help, as well, that the stage was basically illuminated in amber, with very little in the way of usual concert-lighting cues.

His choice of covers showed a good range of influences, from an obscure Bob Dylan song, a bit of Bob Marley's "Trenchtown Rock" and even the comedic folk song "Plastic Jesus."

The covers also included a welcome change of pace, with back-to-back renditions of a surprisingly tight "Cissy Strut," the New Orleans classic by the Meters, and an interesting variant of "Who Do You Love" that showed the band smoothly playing through the usually boogie-based rhythm.

His encore included two new songs, one he said he wrote about a week ago, filled with cyclical images of life in general, and the other a paean to his love of the ocean and boating. It all ended with a percolating little Jimi Hendrix cover from his Band of Gypsys days.

Overall, Jack Johnson deserved a better, more attentive audience for his debut concert back home, but, knowing his demeanor, I'm sure he's not complaining.

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