By Jon Wiederhorn
The location was ideal: The Allen Room, a 150-capacity space at New York’s Lincoln Center, overlooking Columbus Circle and the NYC skyline. It was a far cry from the Bonnaroo festival grounds, where Jack Johnson had recently played an upbeat set to an audience of thousands, replacing Mumford & Sons after that band had to cancel at the last minute.
At Bonnaroo, Johnson was the hero of the weekend. And while his scaled-down, acoustic United Way benefit show taping on June 24 was far more intimate and relaxed than his Bonnaroo set, he still emerged a hopelessly romantic and lovable hero.
Dressed in his regulation casual uniform of blue T-shirt, jeans, and sandals, and performing on a stage decorated with three Afghan rugs and a paisley piano, Johnson previewed a batch of new songs from his upcoming album From Here to Now to You, which comes out September 17. The 60-minute show, "An Acoustic Evening with Jack Johnson," was filmed by PBS and will air in the fall.
Johnson's performance wasn't flawless, but his humanity has always been a large part of his appeal. He fumbled over his words during a couple monologues and forgot some of the lyrics to the new song "Never Fade," but he shrugged off the goofs with a laugh, informing the audience, "Nope, those aren’t the right words," and continuing through to the chorus without a pause.
Johnson's delivery was devoid of tension or pretense and conveyed the vibe of a songwriter sharing music with friends. He reveled in sharing stories with the gathered audience about the creation of each new song, making the session feel much like an episode of VH1's "Storytellers." Johnson’s stories were as heart-warming as his songs.
He told the crowd that he wrote the whole new album in the key of B-flat after a conversation with one of his heroes, Neil Young. "He said the universe is tuned to B-flat," recalled Johnson.
Before playing "Washing Dishes," he revealed, "One of my favorite things to do is wash dishes and listen to a whole album." He introduced another new song, "Don’t Believe a Thing I Say," by admitting, "Most of my songs start with me making fun of my wife. And then they turn into love songs.”
Other new songs included "I Got You" (which he released earlier this month), "As I Was Saying," "You Remind Me of You," and the jazzier, slightly more syncopated "Ones and Zeros," which Johnson played with a capo on his guitar, and which featured a spare arpeggio and notes that spilled like iced tea from a pitcher. "Must I always be playing the fool/No I can’t always be waiting on you," Johnson sang.
A half-dozen numbers into the set, Johnson’s bandmate Zach Gill joined him, first on piano, then on accordion. Gill provided counterpoint to the singer's melodies and fleshed out songs like "Home," which was previously released on the soundtrack to the 2004 surf documentary A Brokedown Melody. "Shot Reverse Shot" was the most upbeat tune of the evening, with vocal wordplay reminiscent of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."
After leaving the stage, Johnson and Gill performed two short encores, which included "Banana Pancakes" from the 2005 album In Between Dreams and "Girl I Wanna Lay You Down," written by Gill.
From Here to Now to You is the follow-up to Johnson's 2010 album To the Sea, which debuted at number one, selling 243,000 copies in its first week.