Jack Johnson | Santa Barbara | Review | Pics

Words & Images by: L. Paul Mann

Jack Johnson :: 10.13.10 :: Santa Barbara Bowl :: Santa Barbara, CA

G. Love by L. Paul Mann
Jack Johnson brought his feel good road show to the Santa Barbara Bowl for the first of two sold out nights. In fact, the shows had sold out shortly after they went on sale last April. 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 the solid turnout was no big surprise for the hometown hero and master of California beach pop.

The 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 performed a short pre-concert jam, before most 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 main stage show began right on schedule with an 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 self-titled debut album. Her music was discovered on YouTube, and found its way to Jack Johnson's record company with the help of Patrick Keeler of Raconteur 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 indie 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 blue since the mid 1990s. Always a great live performer and consummate entertainer, the musician seems equally at home as a street musician with a harmonica & beat-up guitar or a bandleader in front of a large amphitheatre crowd. G. Love has become forever entwined in the career of Jack Johnson. He first featured Johnson on his 1999 album Philadelphonic and played a version of "Rodeo Clowns" long before the world knew of the future California surfer musician phenomenon. Johnson opened for G. Love on his earliest tours. Now G Love records on Brushfire Records, Johnson's label, and frequently opens for the musical prodigy he helped discover. G. Love and Special Sauce offered a funky, blues drenched live show that had many of the elements that make New Orleans music such a great live sound. The crowd greeted the band with an enthusiastic response throughout their 60-minute set.

Jack Johnson by L. Paul Mann
As a cool October evening fell on the Bowl, Jack 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 Santa Barbara, and is considered a local hero. What was a surprise was how much his music and live performance have matured. Johnson has sold over 8 million records in less than a decade with his largely innocuous soft rock sound. His simplistic approach to music with a fine laidback sound has endeared him to a huge worldwide fan base. At the same time, fans of more complex music have criticized his sound as monotonous and uninspired. In fact, his live shows over the years have been lessons in minimalism, in both style and substance. But with the release of his most recent album and the subsequent tour, a more complex, 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, evolved sound. His drummer now sports a complete drum set and uses it to create a much more complex backbeats than in the past. His keyboard player Zach Gill (ALO) plays extensive honky tonk solos in the new work, too. Even Johnson's bass player has taken on a new deeper, richer sound live. 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.

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 performance in a unique, artistic way. A steady stream of musical guests, also added additional layers to the show. Guests included Zee Avi on ukulelele and ALO guitarist Dan Lebowitz, amongst others. But it was the extended appearance near the end of the show by G. Love that was the highlight, and brought the evening full circle back to the impromptu garden jam. Singing, dancing and playing guitar and harmonica, the musical maestro clearly reveled in his performance with his former protégé turned pop icon.

Fans of jam music may dismiss Jack 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.

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[Published on: 10/22/10]

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