Making my way through the crowds of Patagonia jackets and loose floral pants, I arrive at the front of the general admission crowds and wait for Jack Johnson, legendary acoustic rock artist and part-time surfer. The Greek Theatre is an outdoor venue, with stone benches along the edge of the theater (for the relaxed and chill attendants), and a standing area closer to the stage (for me). It’s a clear, breezy night out in Berkeley, and when the show’s opener, John Craigie, comes on stage the sun has only just begun to set.
When I spoke to Craigie the other day, he mentioned how he likes to incorporate humor into his shows. I hadn’t really understood what he meant, figuring that like all touring musicians, Craigie did his best to earn a couple laughs here and there in between sets. But upon seeing him live, I understood how Craigie’s comedy allows him to shine. Cracking up the theater with anecdotes about encountering Oregon hippies and his childhood understanding of The Simpsons, Craigie uses his sense of humor and overall geniality to create an atmosphere of kinship between him and his listeners. Because of this, when he sings personal songs such as “I Am California” and “Rough Johns,” I feel less like I’m observing a distant stage presence and more like I’m hearing the story of a friend.
Though Craigie ended his performance by humbly commenting, “Thank you so much for tolerating the opener thing,” it was evident by the resounding applause and chants of “Craigie, Craigie!” that he had a fan following that went beyond obligatory politeness for the opening act. Later on in the night, Craigie would return on stage to sing a duet version of “I Wrote Mr. Tambourine Man” with Johnson, and also demonstrate his deft harmonica skills.
Johnson meanders onto the stage, moving with lackadaisical grace. Smiling as he eases into guitar strumming, Johnson looks comfortable but appreciative in front of the crowd. When he breaks into “Sitting, Wishing, Waiting,” his attempt at an angry song that comes off more as a mildly irritated ditty, I think about his interview on The Colbert Report where Stephen Colbert point-blank asks him, “How can you be so chill? Where do you store your rage?”
The stage set-up is pleasantly unfussy. Johnson is accompanied by a couple band members who play the piano, drums, and occasionally the accordion. Sometimes the spotlights are a soft yellow, other times they are a blueish green. About halfway through the show Johnson reveals that the lanterns hanging above the stage are made from recycled bottles found on the beaches of Hawaii. As the artist went on to talk about “starting a conversation” about environmentalism, the colored glass in the lanterns flickered brightly.
Other than that, all the focus is on the music, as Johnson plays “Taylor,” “Go On” and “Good People” for the swaying crowd. Occasionally Johnson forgets a line or two of lyrics, and he and the audience chuckle together. Undeterred, Johnson extends a guitar solo as he gathers his thoughts, then jumps back into the song to deliver the lyrics with his weighty yet tender vocals.
While I often associate Johnson’s music with exclusively acoustic guitar instrumentals, songs like “Tape Deck” and “Wasting Time” flourish with the live band. Drums and cheerful piano notes magnify Johnson’s simple melodies and engulf the theater in booming sound. The band’s impact is particularly pronounced in “Mudfootball,” when Johnson and his band energetically bound about the stage. “Ain’t nothing gonna change, there’s no need to complain,” Johnson intones. Meanwhile, the recycled glass bottles light up the darkening sky. The husband and wife on my left slow-dance together. The white boys in crew cuts on my right take profound inhales from their vapes. It’s a beautiful night.
Once “Mudfootball” is over, Johnson thanks the audience and abruptly leaves the stage. Caught off guard, the crowd is confused by the show’s apparent ending, as well as the omission of hits “Better Together” and “Angel” from the set list. I make frantic eye contact with my sister, as if she knows what’s going on any better than I do. Some other distraught people begin to wail.
Thankfully, Johnson soon reappears on stage, this time without his live band. Grinning and nodding his head, he plays his last songs for the night in one flowing medley. As “Angel,” an endearing love song about his wife, is followed by “Better Together,” another endearing love song about his wife, the audience does an odd thing. Everyone stands still, no one pushes each other, and we all watch Johnson perform the songs that we hold closest to our hearts.