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Jack Johnson Fills Madison Square Garden with Love


Jack Johnson isn’t an obvious choice to play Madison Square Garden. His songs-a supremely mellow blend of AM folk and Hendrix-inspired funk rock-seem more suited to a beachside bonfire or a candlelit café than a 20,000-seat arena. Same goes for his look. With his beard, jeans, and simple T-shirt, Johnson looks more like a married 35-year-old with three kids (which he is) than the headliner of the same venue Iron Maiden destroyed earlier this week.

But surfer dad or not, Johnson has sold 18 million records, and his last, June’s To The Sea, went straight to No. 1, selling 243,000 copies in its first week alone. All of which is to say that the Hawaii native may not be your average rock star, but Wednesday night in New York City he commanded a rock star-sized audience (including a couple hoisting a sign reading, “Please play at our wedding!”).

As his been the case elsewhere on this fledgling tour (all the proceeds of which will be given to charity), Johnson played a long, 26-song set. And the crowd-mostly young, mostly tan, mostly with a significant other-seemed to be saving their energy for the second hour. In fact, it wasn’t until the 10th song, a supple “Breakdown” (from 2005’s In Between Dreams) featuring Johnson on ukulele and Dan Lebowitz from openers ALO (yes, that stands for Animal Liberation Orchestra) on lap steel guitar that things started to pick up.

And they really got moving when Johnson whipped out a cover of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” two songs later-a move that got the loudest applause of the night. Hawaiian singer and Johnson pal Paula Fuga then showed up to sing a few tunes: her own “Country Road” and a duet with Johnson on his excellent new ballad “Turn Your Love.”

Opener G. Love joined in soon after for a mini three-song set that proved the highlight of the evening. “Staple it Together” delivered for all the jam-heads in the audience. The sunny funk tune had G. Love blowing a massive harmonica solo and Johnson’s bassist, Merlo Podlewski, rapping. G. Love stuck around to sing a duet on “Rodeo Clowns” (which he recorded back in 1999 for his album Philadelphonic) and a jubilant “At Or With Me,” a new tune that had the whole arena singing along to its wordless chorus.

In the end, though, Johnson is as much family man as multimillion-dollar entertainer. He dedicated To the Sea‘s “My Little Girl” to his mother (“You stole my heart and made it your own”) and the Cat Stevens-esque “Constellations” to his father, the surfer Jeff Johnson who passed away last year: “To lay down underneath the stars / Listen to papa’s translations / Of the stories across the sky.”

But it was Jack’s wife, Kim, who got the biggest tribute. After Johnson dedicated two earlier songs to his college sweetheart, he offered up the encore’s “Do You Remember” and “Angel” in honor of his and Kim’s upcoming 10th wedding anniversary. “She gives me presents with her presence alone” Johnson sang, and all the couples who earlier that night had been dancing, the boys’ hands on their ladies’ swaying hips, were now slow dancing, their arms wrapped around each other’s waists-a high school prom at the Garden. How very mellow indeed.

1. You and Your Heart
2. If I Had Eyes
3. Taylor
4. Sitting, Waiting, Wishing
5. Go On, Go On
6. To the Sea
7. Bubble Toes
8. Wasting Time
9. My Little Girl
10. Breakdown
11. Flake
12. The Joker (Steve Miller Band cover)
13. Country Road
14. Turn Your Love
15. Banana Pancakes
16. Same Girl
17. Good People
18. Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythologies
19. Staple it Together
20. Rodeo Clowns
21. At Or With Me

22. Do You Remember
23. Angel
24. Times Like These
25. Constellations
26. Better Together