When Jack Johnson first decided to find out whether his band had a post-college life outside of Santa Barbara, the famously chill Hawaiian surfer dude came to Colorado, where he got his emphatic answer. Fast-forward 20-plus years and he’s living his very best life: Making his soothing, blue-eyed singalong soul with the same four buddies he started with, touring the country together with his wife, three teens and extended band family while doing his earnest best to save our oceans, one concert at a time.
Only now, he’s sold 25 million records, and his soul-medicine songs get streamed more than 60 million times every month. Johnson is a Hakuna Matata kind of guy with a genuine appreciation for how it all started … and continues.
“Colorado holds dear in our heart because the first tour we ever did was there,” Johnson said Saturday from a tour stop in Austin, Texas. “I think about loading up our Chevrolet Astrovan and the four of us driving around and playing all these spots up and down and all around Colorado. I remember we played Breckenridge, Durango, Boulder, Denver and a bunch of others. At that time, we were really asking ourselves, ‘Can we even do this? Are we a band that can tour?’”
Colorado’s club-crawlers gave Johnson and his mates the answer they were hoping for. “I think of Colorado as our origin story, really,” he said.
This week, the band returns to Colorado – if not to its birthplace then certainly to the place of its adolescent growth spurt. Johnson will be back playing in the state for the first time in five years with concerts Wednesday and Thursday at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre. He’s touring in support of his eighth album, “Meet the Moonlight,” which, after the weirdness and isolation of the pandemic, has been like a surfer catching the perfect wave.
“Not to sound cliche or cheesy, but one of the things I truly love the most about making a record is the people I get to spend time with for that month or so,” Johnson said. “I had been playing with pretty much the same guys from the start, so I kind of rolled the dice on this one and worked with somebody I didn’t know as well going in.” That somebody was highly sought-after producer Blake Mills (and engineer Joseph Lorge). Mills has recorded with top names like Conor Oberst, Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes, Dawes, John Legend and Broadway royalty Cynthia Erivo.
Johnson specifically wanted Mills to help him sharpen his own guitar skills. “I just really loved this idea of playing with somebody I looked up to so much as a guitar player and as a songwriter, and I learned so much from him,” Johnson said.
Most of the songs on the new album began with two microphones and two guitars, Johnson and Mills facing each other and watching one another’s hands. “Then we would kind of build on top of that,” Johnson said. “I really love the way it came out. When I hear it, I hear not only that process of the music gradually building – but this new friendship growing as well.”
Before every concert, Johnson tries to remind himself to be present in the moment and be present with those who have come to see his show. “There are nights where you’ve maybe got a sick kid off-stage, or you’ve got other things on your mind that are distracting you,” he said. “But almost every night, I try my best to just get myself into this place where I can truly take in what it means that all of these people have decided to spend this night playing music with us.”
It hit Johnson just the night before, in Austin, just how much all of this can mean to people. He was playing his signature, seminal and ubiquitous 2005 hit, “Better Together” – the song he’s now played live hundreds of times, the one that’s become a first-dance wedding staple.
“All of a sudden, I heard cheering and I looked over and somebody in the crowd had just gotten engaged,” Johnson said. “So we invited them to come up and slow dance for the rest of the song. It was this really young couple, and later on we were all talking about how cool it is that our song is going to mean a whole lot to these people throughout their life together now.”
The song espouses the simple message that love is the answer for most of the questions in our hearts. It’s a love song to Johnson’s wife but, heard anew all these prickly years later, it’s not such a bad response to all of the toxicity that is dividing friends and families in our increasingly antagonistic world.
“It’s meant to be a romantic song, but sometimes when I play it at a gathering for, say, a nonprofit group, it really makes this whole other intention known about how much stronger we are as communities when we band together,” Johnson said. “… Well, except for the bridge, because that part of the song is about me waking up next to my wife and how pretty she looks.”
Speaking of anthems, the new song “Open Mind” seems like another apolitical political commentary on where we’re at as a fractured people right now: “Why is it so hard to find – or keep – an open mind?” Johnson asks in the song.
“I really like that song, and the weird thing is, we have not played that song live yet,” he said. “But now that you say it, I am going to try to get that one ready for when we get to Denver.”
Since at least 2008, Johnson has used his growing fame to call attention to the worsening global environmental catastrophe, while fully admitting that any concert, including his own, leaves a large environmental footprint. But few have gone to the lengths Johnson has to minimize the impact of his shows.
His greening initiatives include the elimination of single-use plastic – meaning no plastic water bottles. Fans are encouraged to instead bring their own empty containers they can fill with filtered water at several on-site filling stations. Concession beverages are sold out of reusable cups. There is a bike-valet program to encourage cyclists. Backstage catering is fully farm-to-table. Venues are encouraged to source only local, organic food to support farmers in their region.
The tour designates a “Village Green” area at each concert site giving space for 10 area nonprofits to connect with concertgoers about local environmental causes. In Denver, $1 of every ticket purchase will be directed to carbon-offset projects and another $1 will support one of 10 designated Colorado environmental nonprofits.
“Anything we can do to make this tour greener, we do,” said Johnson. “And when our shows are over, you can physically see the difference. At a festival where none of these things are taken into consideration, you will see a sea of plastic afterward. At our shows, there is barely anything left to clean up.”
The best way for Johnson to make the smallest possible environmental footprint, he freely admits, would be not to tour at all. To which his fans might say, “Banana Pancakes!” (And in this context, that would be a synonym for “fiddlesticks”).
“We feel like the better and more long-lasting improvement would be to try to make many of these changes we suggest permanent at the venues we play,” he said. “Sometimes these changes might not feel like the biggest thing in the world, but when it is happening at every show, it makes a huge difference.”
Johnson’s greatest pride, he said, is helping to make potentially permanent connections between concertgoers and the local nonprofits at his shows. During his 2017-18 tour, Johnson’s concerts resulted in $1.9 million in donations to 315 nonprofits. “Whenever we leave a city, we leave those non-profit groups in better shape than when we got to town,” Johnson said, “and that, to me, is lasting, positive change.”
There have been other measurable results. According to that 2017-18 tour data:
- More than 225 local farms were supported as part of the “Farm to Stage” catering program. More than 36,000 single-use plastic bottles were eliminated.
- More than 70,000 reusable cups were sold, eliminating the need for 200,000 plastic cups
- More than 9,615 gallons of recyclables and 1,370 gallons of compostable food waste were collected
- More than 15 million pounds of carbon waste were off-set
For Johnson, it all comes back to gratitude, for the life he gets to live.
“To think that we get to gather together as friends and have our living be based on music …” Johnson said. “I just feel like we are the luckiest group of friends in the world.”