Jack Johnson is the undisputed king of the chic beach soiree and just plain one of the coolest music stars ever. Friday night, Johnson and his band — anchored by partner in merriment Zach Gill, bassist Merlo and Tahoe City native Adam Topol on drums — shared their unique party vibe for the first of two sold-out shows at Harvey’s Outdoor Amphitheater.
Johnson emerged in the twilight wrapped in a stage set dressed in beach and ocean themes — complete with lighting strung over top of the crowd. A backdrop resembling a tattered fishing net, and ceiling rig that illuminated and articulated to give one the sense of peering up from beneath a gently rolling sea, completed the ensemble.
“If I Had Eyes” from the album “Sleeping Through The Static” opened a 90-minute main set that would weave a balanced sampling of favorites, new material, and a few choice covers. “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing,” “Inaudible Melodies,” “Flake,” “Bubble Toes,” “Breakdown,” “Rodeo Clowns,” “Banana Pancakes” and “Good People” brought big cheers and singalongs from swaying couples wrapped in each other’s arms, and parents who brought their kids to turn them on to some of the music they love. My personal favorite was “Staple It Together,” crafted with a jazzy Sergio Mendez & Brasil ’66 “Mas Que Nada” intro.
There was a strong NorCal connection present, with Crystal Bay regulars ALO opening the show and providing a little jam exposure to JJ fans. Animal Liberation Orchestra, which shares Zach Gill and his keys/accordion/melodica/vocals talents with Jack Johnson, would join in for three songs. The longtime friends rolled through the camping trip-in-the-redwoods inspired “Big Sur,” new tune “My Mind Is For Sale” and ALO’s own “Girl I Want To Lay U Down.” The surprise cover of the evening had Oakland’s Zach Rogue joining in to provide lead vocals on Modern English’s ’90s love anthem “I Melt With You,” which had the more-seasoned attendees singing in full throat.
“Good People” wrapped the main set before Johnson emerged for a mostly acoustic encore that included the beautiful love song “Angel” and a playful “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money,” about Johnson’s experience of playing poker (and discovering he was the fish) with one of his idols, Willie Nelson. After the last note, he shared: “Hey, I got a chance to play poker with Willie Nelson, I had to write a song about it.”
Jack Johnson always has been a reluctant superstar, possessing the rarest of “it” factors with a vulnerable humbleness rooting his popularity. The singer/songwriter’s unique phrasing sense, lyrics about love, nature, and the occasional mocking of modern society — presented in a groovy kick-off-your-shoes-and-just-hang-out-with me style — makes him easy to admire. He’s not about guitar shredding, elaborate lighting, or gyrating dancer fluff to overwhelm your senses. If you can’t have fun at a Jack Johnson show, it’s probably you.
Editor’s note: On the second evening, Johnson introduced a song about “that first band that practiced in the garage.” He asked his drummer Adam Topol if he had a first band in Tahoe. “Beergardners,” Topol replied. The Beergardners, of course, was the band of longtime North Shore soundman Blake Beeman’s.
“Blake Beeman, everyone loves Blake, he got me my first gig,” Topol said. “We played at Sunnyside, Naughty Dog, Humpty’s. … Humpty’s is where we went to jam. This song is for Blake.”
Beeman helped transform the Crystal Bay Casino into a nationally renowned music venue. He died of cancer in 2015.
Crystal Bay Casino General Manager Bill Wood was at the show.
“I’m sure the entire 9,000 in attendance heard (my wife) Patti and I scream, ‘We love you Blake!’ What an honor for brother Blake. I’m sure he was upstairs flashin’ that mischievous grin of his. It made our night.”