Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Music review: Johnson's friendly, green, intimate vibe not well-suited to Cruzan

Jack Johnson brings his mellow vibe to the Cruzan.‭
(‬Photo by Thom Smith‭)

By Thom Smith

It‭’‬s‭ ‬6‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬The‭ ‬South Florida sun is still hot enough to cook eggs on the pavement.‭ ‬Most performers would be chilling in their tour buses or having dinner at the Four Seasons.‭ ‬Not Jack Johnson.

‭ ‬Armed only with guitars,‭ ‬he and his old buddy G Love set up on his‭ “‬village green‭”‬ at Cruzan Amphitheatre and sang a few songs for the early arrivals.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a good move:‭ ‬He warms up a little and helps draw attention to the organizations whose booths rim the‭ “‬green.‭”‬

Johnson literally uses green to live green.‭ ‬When he can,‭ ‬he rides a bike‭; ‬when he can‭’‬t,‭ ‬his buses run on biodiesel fuel.‭ ‬From the show‭’‬s proceeds,‭ ‬he matches whatever the organizations on each concert‭’‬s village green‭ ‬raise,‭ ‬up to‭ ‬$2,500.‭ ‬Cruzan‭’‬s beneficiaries included‭ ‬Kids Ecology Corps,‭ ‬Surfrider Foundation,‭ ‬Trash to‭ ‬Treasure‭ ‬Creative‭ ‬Reuse‭ ‬Center,‭ ‬the local arm of‭ ‬Slow Food‭ ‬USA and Indian Riverkeeper.

‭“‬He‭’‬s wearing one of our shirts during the show,‭”‬ Surfrider‭’‬s local vice chair‭ ‬Todd Remmel bubbled.‭ “‬We sold out of shirts.‭”

Johnson‭’‬s presence also generated signatures for petitions to ban offshore drilling on Florida‭’‬s Gulf Coast and to stop construction of environmentally unfriendly breakwaters off Singer Island.‭

Johnson was just as happy to play for the few dozen on the village green are he was‭ ‬for‭ ‬19,000‭ ‬when he walked onto the the Cruzan stage at‭ ‬9‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Thursday.‭ ‬Simply,‭ ‬both are‭ ‬places to play,‭ ‬neighborhoods,‭ ‬large and small,‭ ‬in his community.‭

But with a venue as enormous as Cruzan,‭ ‬performing on the green‭ ‬is the omelet to the‭ ‬big stage‭’‬s scrambled eggs.‭ ‬Cruzan‭’‬s‭ ‬mass renders everything less significant.‭ ‬Even Jack.‭ ‬His music is not small,‭ ‬but it‭’‬s intimate.‭ ‬It‭’‬s why lovers prefer to make love in the back seat of a car than in a stadium.‭

Five years ago,‭ ‬Johnson‭’‬s bus stopped at the Mizner Park Amphitheatre in Boca,‭ ‬a‭ ‬band of five‭ ‬still wet behind the ears in touring terms.‭ ‬For a crowd of‭ ‬2,500,‭ ‬Johnson‭’‬s laid-back style worked fine.‭ ‬It didn‭’‬t hurt that Jimmy Buffett dropped‭ ‬by for a couple of numbers.‭

Cruzan,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬is a different bowl of poi.‭ ‬It‭’‬s‭ ‬great for the bottom line and great for the eco-groups that reaped the proceeds and exposure‭ ‬.‭ ‬.‭ ‬.‭ ‬but not great for the fan who wants to hear,‭ ‬and listen to‭ ‬his lyrics.‭

Both Buffett and Johnson‭ ‬project‭ ‬beach party personas,‭ ‬fueled by boards,‭ ‬buds and beers.‭ ‬Buffett‭’‬s parties are wild,‭ ‬bayou-flavored,‭ ‬spring-break concoctions that inspire bead collecting.‭ ‬Johnson‭’‬s remain more reserved‭ ‬– akin to gathering around a fire at the beach house,‭ ‬grilling some ahi,‭ ‬singing a few tunes,‭ ‬taking quiet walks along the shore.

Buffett was small once.‭ ‬The‭ ‬original‭ ‬Coral Reefers‭ ‬were‭ ‬a band of one,‭ ‬but as his fame grew,‭ ‬so did the band.‭ ‬Three decades ago he played small halls like‭ ‬Miami‭’‬s Gusman Theatre with four backups.‭ ‬Now‭ ‬Buffett‭’‬s Tabernacle Choir numbers a dozen or more and can easily fill the stage‭ ‬at Cruzan.‭ ‬Instant‭ ‬Mardi Gras.

G Love and Jack Johnson.‭
(‬Photo by Kirsten Smith‭)

Unfortunately for Johnson,‭ ‬Cruzan isn‭’‬t suited to singing‭ ‬songs around a campfire.‭ ‬Its sound system could make a piker out of Pavarotti.‭ ‬Johnson‭’‬s‭ ‬fans‭ ‬who know‭ ‬his lyrics can‭ ‬snuggle and sway and sing along,‭ ‬but newcomers to Johnson‭’‬s style‭ ‬were left to shrug and wonder what all the fuss was about.‭

Johnson‭’‬s‭ ‬songs don‭’‬t tell stories like Buffett or raise hackles like Dylan.‭ ‬He‭ ‬ doesn‭’‬t screech like Steven Tyler or strut like Mick Jagger.‭ ‬He doesn‭’‬t‭ ‬reach the high registers like‭ ‬Roger Daltrey or belt bluesy like Otis Redding.‭ ‬Don‭’‬t look for the passion of‭ ‬a Bruce‭ ‬Springsteen,‭ ‬the eroticism of‭ ‬a‭ ‬Jim Morrison‭ ‬or‭ ‬the soul of‭ ‬a‭ ‬Ray Charles in his shows.‭

Folky but not quite funky.‭ ‬Perhaps an occasional Latin rhythm or reggae riff.‭ ‬No screams,‭ ‬no pain.‭ ‬He‭’‬s a surfer,‭ ‬but he doesn‭’‬t sing surfing songs.‭ ‬He‭’‬s Hawaiian,‭ ‬but he doesn‭’‬t include any Hawaiian music,‭ ‬although he‭ ‬did‭ ‬pick up a ukulele for‭ ‬Breakdown.‭

Finally,‭ ‬Johnson begins to fill the stage.‭ ‬With the arrival of guest Duane Betts‭ ‬ (son of West Palm‭’‬s own Dickey Betts‭)‬,‭ ‬the tempo and the mood‭ ‬were revved up with‭ ‬ some hot licks on‭ ‬Mud Football.‭ ‬Betts left,‭ ‬replaced by‭ ‬Hawaiian‭ ‬Paula Fuga‭ ‬plus Dan Liebowitz from opening act ALO who brought along his‭ ‬slide guitar for three songs,‭ ‬and then G Love.‭ ‬They‭ ‬added some needed counterpoint.‭ ‬Too bad Fuga‭’‬s‭ ‬graceful gestures on‭ ‬Turn Your Love‭ ‬and‭ ‬Country Road‭ ‬weren‭’‬t expanded to a full hula.‭

Covers of The Cars‭’‬ Just What I Needed,‭ ‬inserted into‭ ‬Poor Taylor,‭ ‬Steve Miller‭’‬s‭ ‬Joker‭ ‬and Buffett‭’‬s‭ ‬A Pirate Looks at‭ ‬40‭ ‬during the encore added variety and change of pace.‭ ‬To use a Hawaiian surfing metaphor,‭ ‬the added energy was like the difference between‭ ‬Waikiki and the‭ ‬North‭ ‬Shore.

If you like someone who stands at the mike,‭ ‬strums a decent guitar and delivers,‭ ‬without flash,‭ ‬sincere,‭ ‬heartfelt poems‭ ‬– mostly free verse,‭ ‬not much rhyme‭ ‬– set to simple melodies,‭ ‬then Jack‭’‬s your man.‭ ‬Fundamentally,‭ ‬his‭ ‬show flows in‭ ‬streams‭ ‬– no‭ ‬– waves of consciousness.‭ ‬For‭ ‬many fans,‭ ‬his songs are‭ “‬their songs,‭”‬ reminding them of a first date or a special birthday.‭

He has been‭ ‬described as the‭ “‬anti-bling.‭”‬ Perhaps a better moniker would be earth father,‭ ‬as he helps a generation addicted to Facebook and various housewives who dance with Star Trekkies connect to a less obvious but more genuine and productive humanity.‭

After two hours and more than two dozen songs,‭ ‬many‭ ‬people left wanting more.‭ ‬Blame Cruzan‭ ‬– for its impersonal sound‭; ‬credit Jack‭ ‬--‭ ‬for using its size for economic good.
Somewhere down the road,‭ ‬he‭’‬ll‭ ‬come back,‭ ‬and‭ ‬he‭’‬ll give them more.‭ ‬Perhaps in a slightly more intimate‭ ‬venue.‭

Anyone know a beach house where we could‭ ‬light a bonfire‭?‬

Jack Johnson brings the band and crew onstage
to celebrate the end of this leg of his To the Sea tour.‭
(‬Photo by Thom Smith‭)

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