Jack Johnson

If you didn’t make it out to Coachella Friday night– and based on the deserted festival grounds, I feel it’s safe to assume you didn’t– you missed a truly eclectic and enjoyable trip down the music bunny trail. When last we spoke, we’d just wrapped up an excellent set from tiny Canadian twin rocker girls Tegan and Sara and were awaiting the Raconteurs, that motley group fronted by the dual Detroit fury of Brendan Benson and some dude named Jack White. From there, we traveled to the Swell Season– who you might know better as Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who you might know better as the cast of Once— and then to the old-school funk of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. (The Dap-Kings, btw, back that nice Amy Winehouse in their spare time.) And then we wrapped up the night by sitting on picnic tables and pondering the mysteries of the universe contained within the songs– and colossal popularity– of headliner Jack Johnson (pictured). I figure his name needs no further clarification…

…but maybe it does? I mean, this is a dude who sells gajillions of records and yet… um, there was nobody at Coachella yesterday. At all. I mentioned this in my earlier post, but it became more and more apparent as the sun went down and the bands on the mainstage got bigger and the crowd, somehow, never did. One judges crowd size at most festivals based on how close one can get to the stage, and to put it mildly, yesterday was a point-and-shoot camera-owner’s dream. Gone were the screaming hoardes of Chili Pepper fans, or the Rage Against the Machine devotees who planted themselves at the barriers with hours to spare; they were replaced by a few families and a number of underage girls in cute tank tops pressed towards the front, and empty grass as far as the eye could see.

So let’s then judge last night’s Coachella performances by their tremendous quality, and not the quantity of the crowd in attendance. After the jump, all the aforementioned bands– one of whom turned in a show that now sits in my top 10 of all time. Read on to find out more… and don’t forget to wear that sunblock under your clothes, eh?

Jack White is a fan of stagecraft; this we know. So when the stagehands for the Raconteurs showed up dressed in natty gray shirts and black ties– echoing the Robert Wilson-esque garb he’d put them in for the White Stripes’ epic ’07 Bonnaroo set– I prepared myself for another calculated musical demonstration. How thrilled was I, then, to see Jack, Brendan, and their supporting Greenhornes members walk out and immediately throw off all pretense to storm through most of Consolers of the Lonely with a passion unadorned by overthinking. They opened with the Benson-sung title track– not always easy to tell who’s singing what on the album, the boys having a similar high-pitched howl– then pulled screeching into “Hold Up.” I stood there in the photo pit, barely able to click my shutter because I was so obsessed with the notion of Jack White just, like, playing in a band. The attraction here is obvious for him, I’d think (and believe you me, I spend more time than most pondering the motives and mindset of that guy): Finally, he just gets to play his guitar with a bunch of boys and have fun rockin’ out, instead of calculating every action and answer to a set of rules he set up a decade ago. He played keys without simultaneously having to play guitar. He played guitar without having to generate every last noise himself. He handed off riffs to Benson, who often matched him lick for lick. And when they got to “Blue Veins,” Jack got to lay down the solo White Stripes fans had waited eons to hear him play, a drawn-out bluesy squealing space child that soared into the darkening sky.

It is possible, then, for Jack White to just be in a band– except for it’s not, because he’s still Jack White, and you’re still staring only at him even though there are four other dudes on stage. Which is why, when they arrived at “Steady As She Goes” and the crowd roared their approval and Jack’s guitar made this godawful atonal noise, the skeptic in me immediately scribbled down, Some sort of trashed-out intro that says, Yeah, we know you like this song but we do not care and we reserve the right to make it ugly. But by the time I looked up, he’d ditched the guitar and was standing behind the mic, singing. And it is very, very odd to see Jack White simply standing at a mic and singing, with nothing in his hands– like watching Hillary Clinton downing a shot, or Obama bowling a strike. But then Jack’s guitar reemerged, and it was tuned properly now, and the song went on. So, perhaps it was technical difficulties, not a choice. These things happen in bands. Who knows. It was weird. Also strange was his subsequent decision to ask the crowd to do a call-and-response at the end of the song (“Steady as she goes!” “Are you steady now?”), which added just a little stadium cheese to what had not been a particularly cheesy show, and I’m not sure necessarily suited his character or the song. But that’s just me. And I hold that boy to higher standards than most. Let’s hope America still calls in and votes for him, because Consolers of the Lonely is growing on me like a really fun mole.

I can already tell this morning’s blog post is spinning off into oblivion. Ah well, suck it up, because it’s time for the Swell Season, those Irish darlings who made you fall in love with love. On the smaller of the two mainstages, with the thundering of other bands in the background, this supposedly sweet and quiet act might have seemed out of place (despite the presence of the Frames and a guest appearance by the National’s Bryan Devendorf on drums) (We skipped the National, btw, because they are not a band for the outdoors). “How to be louder than the Raconteurs?” Glen pondered, after walking out alone with his wrecked guitar for a passionate “Say it to Me Now.” But he shouldn’t have worried– his raspy wail and thick acoustic were enough to hold the crowd rapt until they got what they came for, by which I mean that g-d “Falling Slowly” song, which makes me cry every single g-d time. Hansard introduced it with an analogy, saying the song’s journey to Oscar victory was a bit like kicking a ball and seeing it fly over the fence, across the river, and into the next effing town, and the feeling now is a combination of “Did I kick the ball too hard?” and “I want my f—ing ball back.” Personally, I refuse to return said ball to him. I could listen to that song five times a day, every day, and still cry every single time. Best unexpected moment: A cover of the Pixies’ “Cactus.” As Irglová hollered the high harmonies, Patti-Scialfa style, into Hansard’s mic, he violently broke a string and switched to an electric, almost without stopping the riff. Fairy magic? Perhaps!

We checked in on about five minutes of the Verve, but didn’t find any easy entry points in what Mr. Ashcroft et al were doing– sometimes we have musical blind spots, PopWatchers, and the Verve is one of mine– but there was no need to fret. For in a tent across the way, Ms. Sharon Jones and the glorious Dap-Kings were about to present the best set of the day, and the show that now ranks among the best I’ve seen in my life. Actually, I could almost be convinced that her set is that good, every single time. I started out in the photo pit, at the feet of Ms. Jones’ hype man, Binky Griptite, as the Dap-Kings warmed up the crowd; when Mr. Griptite took to the mic to deliver a rapid-fire introduction of the imminent soul goddess, my earplugs kept me from understanding much of his patter except the only line I needed to hear. “Miss!” [insert band blast here] “Sharon!” [blast] “Jones!” And then a funk rhythm kicked in that didn’t stop for nearly an hour. In a fringed dress of the Tina Turner oeuvre, she shimmied and shook and belted tunes simultaneously aggressive and smooth; I was taking photos like a madman, most of which came out blurry because I couldn’t stand still. But I was moving like a dork. Sharon Jones was moving like a woman. I need Sharon Jones to teach me to be a woman. I am barely kidding.

After pulling a gawky indie boy out of the swarming sidestage and serenading him with “You’re Gonna Get It”– an experience said gawky indie boy was in no way equipped to handle– she moved into some material from 100 Days, 100 Nights (a Whittlz-Certified Top Ten Album of 2007!), and then declared, “We’re all about the old style! We’re all about getting loose!” But to get loose, Ms. Jones needed to take it down. Also, when she gets loose, she just wants to dance. And this, friends, led into one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen in my life– again, something she may very well do at every show, but I’d never seen it before, and was thus blown away. She began by sing-songing a story about her ancestors: West Africans, who danced for peace, and Native Americans, who danced for the peace pipe. For each, she performed a traditional step, with the Dap-Kings keeping the soul groove rolling. After the history lesson, she explained, “Then along came me.” She grew up in church. “What you talkin’ about, Sharon Jones?” she asked herself. And then she did her dance, which started in her feet and traveled, body part by body part, all the way to her head. And as that dance traveled, the euphoria in the tent grew, until frenzy overtook us all, and arms were waving in the air and hands were clapping and I was grinning wide as can be. Big tent revival? Even better: As Binky explained, we had just witnessed the “funky soul phenomenon known as Miss. Sharon. Jones.” I can only recommend you do the same as soon as humanly possible.

Whew. That enough for ya? How about some Jack Johnson, to complete your Brushfire Records bookends on the day? Our openers Rogue Wave are signed to Johnson’s label, and in fact the first song Jack tossed to the screaming not-quite-masses (one of whom greeted his appearance on stage by yelling, “MY HERO!”) was the sweetly pleasant “Hope,” co-written with Zach Rogue. And then he played a bunch more sweetly pleasant songs. To be frank, most of them sounded the same. Josh and I sat on our picnic table, sipping beer and taking in the starry sky as various forms of festival-going douchebaggery spun about us; eventually, Johnson started into “Bubble Toes,” and I employed my patented I Can Leave When I Hear A Song I Know technology to head for the car. I hope no one takes this as an insult to Jack– I have nothing but respect for the guy, as well as massive crushing envy for anyone who has set up a life for themselves where they wear t-shirts and jeans and flip-flops and do nothing but surf and play guitar all day somewhere on the North Shore of Oahu and still rake in massive wads of cash with which to buy more t-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops– but that was really all the soft-spoken boy music I needed. But not to worry: If you guys want to scream at me for not watching the whole set, I think I can catch him at about 17 more festivals over the course of the summer. Please just let me know, and I’ll do better next time. I am here for you and you alone.

Aaaaand, we’re done! Huzzah! That was Friday. Today, it is Saturday, and it is 100 degrees, and the lineup is kinda weak here in the morning, so look for just one post from my afternoon/evening at about this time tomorrow. We’ll be heading over to the grounds around 3:30 for MGMT– yay, MGMT! I can’t wait!– and then later you’ve got your Death Cab, your Rilo Kiley, your Kraftwerk, your M.I.A., and that Prince guy is apparently going to make an appearance. My coworker Chris Willman just read us the lyrics of the new song he performed on Leno last night– something about what he wants to do to us is illegal in 13 states and he’s going to split the headboard in half? Oh my. I’d best bring a towel.