The lights were strung from the stage with care, and the sold-out crowd buzzed with bonhomie as singer-songwriter Jack Johnson said something perhaps never said before from the stage of a rock concert.
“I wanna play this one for any kids out there before it gets too late tonight,” he said, his fingers finding the opening notes of his hit single “Upside Down” on the neck of his acoustic guitar.
The sweetly melodic tune, taken from his 2006 soundtrack, Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George, elicited the desired reaction from the young family in the row behind me — “Yes!” I heard a child’s voice shriek — and, in that moment, helped explain how the Hawaiian native has sustained a career for nearly two decades.
Johnson’s sold-out turn Friday night at the Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory was his first Dallas appearance in eight years, and he drew an audience ranging in age from kindergarten to recently retired.
Everyone in attendance, however, had the same goal: a good time with some chill tunes outside before the real world and the oppressive summer heat made their presences felt. Anyone who left the venue, its enormous doors open to reveal a lawn packed with people, feeling anything less than utterly mellow should probably consult a doctor.
Johnson, alternating among acoustic guitar, electric guitar and the ukulele, and the three musicians with whom he shared the stage — multi-instrumentalist Zach Gill, drummer Adam Topol and bassist Merlo Podlewski — were only too happy to oblige, seemingly constructing the setlist in real time. (“Any requests?” Johnson asked midway through the evening, eliciting a torrent of suggestions from the pit. “I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” he told them.)
The environmental and social activist showcased plenty from his seven studio albums, but curiously, he didn’t offer much from his most recent record, last year’s All the Light Above It Too, the promotional focal point of his tour.
He played only three songs from the 11-track All the Light — the politically charged “You Can’t Control It” and the breathtaking “Big Sur” in the main set and the dryly funny “Willie Got Me Stoned” in the encore.
Perhaps Johnson was more focused on sustaining the mood of a friendly backyard gathering, a sensation enhanced by the amiable ebb and flow of the songs, which frequently bled into one another. As such, the song choice skewed familiar, with favorites like the set-opening “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing,” “Taylor,” “Flake” and “Banana Pancakes” making appearances.
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More than once, the two-hour concert felt like a spontaneous jam session among friends, for which there just happened to be an audience, singing along at full volume and punting the occasional beach ball into the air.
Johnson, who freely shared amusing anecdotes between songs, also stirred in plenty of covers: “Staple It Together” segued into a bit of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”; “Bubble Toes” veered off into an extended appreciation of the Steve Miller Band’s ’70s classic “The Joker”; Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” spun into Johnson’s “Mudfootball.” The opening act, Portland’s Fruition, joined the headlining action for a couple of songs, including a lush take on Johnson’s “Breakdown.”
By going with the flow and letting the music dictate how things unfolded, Johnson made it clear how he has endured as his brand of sensitive folk-pop has slipped from mainstream favor. (The five platinum albums he’s amassed and the inescapable singles spawned from said albums probably don’t hurt his longevity, either.)
Nevertheless, that flexibility, coupled with his endearment to a generation of children via Curious George and a laid-back musical mentality, suggests Johnson will continue to ride the wave of adoration on display in Irving for as long as he likes.