Surfers all have a common bond: the love of waves. But for pro-surfer-turned-musician Jack Johnson and many of the people that have stepped into his life, the bonds go beyond that.
“I could trace everything back to surfing, all the nice things that have happened,” Johnson said.
His chance meetings with fellow surfers have blossomed into great success beyond the beach in an arena that was once foreign to Johnson – music. For the singer and guitarist, who is the highly anticipated act at the Greek Theatre tonight and Sunday, misfortune became fortune. When a surfing accident landed him into the hospital, a friend bought him a guitar and he discovered that he was a lot better at playing the instrument than he had ever imagined. With the support of colleagues, his musical career took form.
Johnson started out in entertainment as a filmmaker. While he was making his feature “Thicker Than Water,” he would play the guitar for his friends during his downtime. He blew them away with his catchy songs and skilled guitar playing. One of those friends, Emmett Malloy, later became his manager.
“I wanted to make sure this got dealt with properly so I took it upon myself. He’s a real fragile guy – if it’s not fun for him, he doesn’t want to be apart of it,” explained Malloy.
Garrett Dutton of G. Love and Special Sauce, a blues and folk group that will take the stage with Johnson at the Greek, remembers the days when Johnson would jam with him in San Diego, after they surfed together.
“[Johnson] did a duet with me on my record ‘Rodeo Clowns”, and producers just picked it up. “We were down in San Diego, and then he just blew up,” said Dutton.
Dutton and Johnson have frequently performed together, well before they made careers of music.
“I met Jack while we were surfing. We were trying new things,” reminisced Dutton.
Both frontmen of this weekend’s acts exude guy-next-door facades. But on stage, they radiate charisma, drawing musically from blues and folk greats, but making lyrics and instrumentation their own.
“As a kid, my mom had me practice my guitar. At 13, I was still good, so I just stuck with it,” Dutton joked.
Johnson’s jam sessions with surfer friends paid off. Having known Ben Harper’s manager, J. P. Plunier from the beach, their relationship grew inside the studio when Johnson handed him a four-track tape of his music. One thing led to another, and he found himself touring with superstar Harper himself.
Originally from the tropical islands of Hawaii, Johnson now spends his days in the studio or on the road, conjuring up deliciously unpretentious lyrics against a smooth, acoustic guitar sound. When his latest album “Brushfire Fairytales” hit the stores, it didn’t blow up immediately. But after national airplay, the success of the album soared to the top, selling more than 70,000 copies by the end of 2001. His style has been compared to that of Ben Harper and Willy Porter. In fact Harper is featured playing guitar on Johnson’s hit track “Flake”.
Everything was new for the musician and manager as they started talking with major labels. They didn’t have experience in the music industry, so they just played it by ear, which ended up being a lot more fun, and lucrative.
“We’d go into these meetings and neither one of us knew anything about the music industry. We’d just go in and sit there and talk to people. It was all just kind of fun,” said Johnson.
Die-hard Jack Johnson fans are rather disappointed at the musician’s move towards a more “mainstream sound” in order to appeal to a wider audience, a change noticeable in his progression to Brushfire from earlier albums.
“I liked his music better when it consisted of simple lyrics that spoke more of the mundane, unnoticed details of life,” said surfer Cindy Yang. “He’s moving away from his style from the days when he had a large independent following in San Diego into a sound that more can relate too. Although I’m disappointed, I still want to see him in concert.”
Johnson will be performing at sold-out shows this Friday and Sunday.
“We will play hits people know and try to mix things up. We just played a set with Jack today. Everyone’s playing well,” said Dutton.