Jack Johnson bugs critics. With little praise from us (RS has given his records an average of 2.25 stars) and little play on the airwaves, the Hawaiian singer-songwriter has sold more than a million copies of each of his three albums. Way to go around us, people.
Other strikes against him: he's a thoughtful and well-behaved guitar strummer who sings about domestic bliss (we're only now forgiving McCartney), and, well, he wears sandals.
All of the above were on display Wednesday at Holmdel, New Jersey's PNC Bank Arts Center. Johnson, a professional surfer-turned-filmmaker-turned pop star, began his latest career by entertaining his circle of friends at barbecues and beach parties -- his laidback approach wasn't any different last night, but the circle was almost 20,000-people deep . . . with more in the parking lot trying to buy their way in. (Portions of the proceeds from the sold-out show benefited Hurricane Katrina victims.)
To stand in one spot in front of a crowd that large -- armed only with an acoustic guitar and a delicately playing bass, drum and piano ensemble -- is to believe in your songs. And thanks to his bouncy melodies, contrapuntal rhythms and infectious choruses, Johnson's confidence was richly rewarded last night. Repeated listens to the sparely produced studio versions of "Sitting, Waiting, Wishing," "Constellations" and "Wasting Time" reveal rock-anthem swells just beneath the surface -- but, instead of shooting off electric-guitar and keyboard flares, Johnson allows listeners to dive in and discover them on their own. Last night, instead of assuming the role of enigmatic showman steering his faithful through the show, Johnson let the crowd take the wheel, and it was their manic shrieks of "Where'd all the good people go?" ("Good People") and "fade, fade a-waaaay" ("The Horizon Has Been Defeated") that cascaded throughout the domed shell.
While Johnson, clad in a T-shirt and baggy jeans, crooned his gentle ditties about star-gazing under mango trees and whipping his wife up some banana pancakes, he and his bandmates were illuminated with slides of dripping leaves, fading sunsets and sleepy palm trees. The Jack Johnson version of the arena-rock, show-stopping moment was his soaring "Breakdown," when he busted out a ukulele and the stage was alight with tropical fish.
For better and worse, Johnson proved a generous party host, inviting Grammy-winning Hawaiian music veteran John Cruz to the stage for a charming duet of Cruz's "Island Style." He also brought up opener Matt Costa for a harmony-challenged take on the Beatles' "Two of Us," and forced snippets of the Cars' "Just What I Needed" and the White Stripes' "My Doorbell" into his own works.
Johnson was at his best when he did his own thing: swaying gently, plucking his guitar and letting his sturdy songs sail through the night. It might not have been very rock & roll, but, last night near the Jersey shore, you'd have had a hard time finding somebody who cared.