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Jack Johnson brings mellow melodies to MSG

Jack Johnson strummed a joyous chord with the

Jack Johnson strummed a joyous chord with the crowd at Wednesday night's opening with favorite hits and by mixing in new songs and new voices from his band at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. (July 14, 2010) Credit: Newsday/Hunter Atkins

For a crowd hailing from the hustling, bustling, cutthroat city that never sleeps, those in attendance at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night were sent pleasantly adrift by Jack Johnson, as if they were swept up in an ocean current with the Hawaiian surfer-turned-songwriter.

The sleepy-voice Johnson struck a joyous chord with the crowd, embracing fans with his tranquil crooning and gentle strumming.

PHOTOS: Jack Johnson in concert at MSG

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Just three songs into the concert, Johnson said, “Was anyone there when I threw up at the Mercury Lounge on stage?” receiving chuckles from the jam-packed arena. That’s Johnson: genuinely down-to-earth and without apprehensions. His music puts you at ease or, at most, sends an urge to sway through your bones.

Jams for the bonfire, without question. But the Jimmy Buffet of our generation? Absolutely not. For every ray of Hawaiian sunshine that brightens his tunes, there is his complex “battle with time,” as he calls it, struggles with the responsibilities of being a good husband and father.

He dedicated songs to his family. “My Little Girl” from his new album "To the Sea" was for both his mother and his daughter, while “Constellations,” a classic from his third album "In Between Dreams," was for his father.

Johnson warmed up the crowd by playing four of his best known songs and ignited the loudest reaction from the crowd with classics “Banana Pancakes” and “Bubbly Toes.” However, the 26-song set included collaborations and solos that showcased Johnson’s friends who tour with him: Zack Gill, Dan Lebowitz, Paula Fuga and G. Love, who opened for Johnson. The play of Johnson’s accompanying musicians emphasized the change in focus heard on "To the Sea," which has fewer one-instrument songs and delivers a sound more akin to a funk or blues band.

Johnson stepped aside for Gill on a gnarly accordion solo during a fresh batch of “Banana Pancakes” and G. Love shredded in multiple harmonica solos during “Rodeo Clowns” and an elaborately layered rendition of “Staple it Together,” a song not regarded for its complexity on "In Between Dreams."

It was almost over when Johnson left the stage after playing 20 songs, but the crowd refused to disperse. About three minutes of unremitting cheering and applause later, Johnson returned for a 5-song encore. Johnson thanked New York during the encore for the somber inspiration that caused him to write “On and On,” which appeared on his second album. Johnson said he wrote it after the Sept. 11th attacks.

Johnson played alone during the first four songs of the encore, but invited everyone who performed Wednesday night to belt out a tsunami-sized rendition of his biggest hit “Better Together.”

Who would have thought that such an in-your-face metropolis would embrace the soft-spoken island melodies of Johnson? Turns out the two are better together.

Johnson’s set list:

“You and Your Heart”
“If I Had Eyes”
“Sitting, Waiting, Wishing”
“Go On”
“From the Clouds”
“To the Sea”
“Bubble Toes”
“Wasting Time”
“My Little Girl”
“Breakdown” (with Dan Lebowitz)
“The Joker” (cover of song by Steve Miller Band)
“Flake” (with Dan Lebowitz)
“Country Road” (with Paula Fuga)
“Turn Your Love” (with Paula Fuga, Dan Lebowitz)
“Banana Pancakes”
“Same Girl”
“Good People”
“Red Wine, Mistakes, Mythology” (with G. Love)
“Staple It Together”
“Rodeo Clowns” (with G. Love)
“At Or With Me” (with G. Love)

“Do You Remember”
“On and On”
“Better Together” (G. Love, Lebowitz and Fuga)

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