SANTA MONICA, California —
Three thousand fans with free tickets covered a large portion of Santa Monica's iconic pier for the show. An almost equal amount who weren't able to score tickets lined the beach below with blankets (which came in handy on the unseasonably cold night).
Prior to the show, the crowd below was treated to a rare opportunity to hear the man of the night and his band's soundcheck — thanks in part to the open-air stage. In between songs, the troubadour shouted out to those below, generating enthusiastic responses from the growing crowd.
Following the soundcheck, Johnson told MTV News how special the pre-show audience was. "A lot of times in soundcheck, we end up just not playing a whole song because it's just us and we've heard it enough times," Johnson said. "But once there's people listening — even if it's 10 or 15 — we usually play a whole song because it's just nicer to listen to. So this time we had what looks like a couple hundred people at least for a soundcheck. But it was fun. We just played a song that we're not gonna play tonight — might as well use that one."
While some fans might think it's unusual to catch Johnson in such an intimate setting, he continues to play smaller stages back home in Hawaii, mostly for his own nonprofit, the Kokua Hawaii Foundation. Usually in classroom settings, Johnson embraces the unpredictability of not having his road crew with him to set up a professional sound system (he says it's usually "just me and the guitar").
And on the eve of the release of his fifth studio album, To the Sea (due June 1), the singer/songwriter shared his philosophy on playing new and for the most part never-heard-before songs during his set.
"I think there will be a couple of the new songs, kind of finding that balance. Because I just know from being a music fan and going to shows as well, I like hearing some new stuff, but definitely want to hear a lot of the old ones that you already identify with," Johnson said.
True to his words, later that night Johnson sprinkled some new tunes in with his established crowd favorites. He and his band took the stage shortly after 8 p.m. and jumped right into the lead single from To the Sea, called "You and Your Heart." Acknowledging a few missed chords, Johnson ended the song by saying, "The reason this show is free is because we haven't played in a month."
The crowd chuckled with him and it set the tone for the loose and free-flowing show. "If I Had Eyes" was next, followed by the Curious George soundtrack song "Upside Down," which drew a collective "Aww" from the crowd when Johnson dedicated it "to the little girl with the beanie on her head" who was hoisted on her dad's shoulders.
Next up were a series of pairings that Johnson and the band segued into without pausing. They followed "Flake" with the Steve Miller Band classic "The Joker." "Do You Remember" went into "Bubbly Toes," which drew a raucous sing-along on the "la da da da da da's." They ended the night's pairings with the crowd favorite "Inaudible Melodies" and "Good People."
Some of the new songs that made it into the set were "To the Sea," "From the Clouds," and "At or With Me."
Highlights of the night included pianist Zach Gill's efforts to keep the crowd warm by initiating an audience-wide pogo jump, bassist Merlo Podlewski's rap on "Staple It Together," and most of all, Johnson's solo encore of "Better Together," which brought a hush across the crowd, then a whispered sing-along of the tune. And there was no better way to end the night.