As it tries to find its place on the overcrowded Southern California festival calendar, Ohana Fest is doing its best to be different. It’s location at the idyllic Doheny State Beach makes it easy to go for a surf in the morning, and take in tunes in the afternoon. Or, if you’re eager, you can sit in a lounge chair outside the festival’s entrance on a Sunday morning and hear Jack Johnson soundcheck.
Facing the beach beyond a grassy area and bleachers, Johnson belted out a few tunes while getting a good look of his afternoon activity. Organized by his pals Eddie Vedder and Kelly Slater, Johnson jumped at the chance to perform — almost literally.
“Eddie had me on ‘Do you want to…’ and I said ‘Sure!’ and finished the sentence for him,” he says with a smile backstage while nursing a coffee after his soundcheck. “Even during soundcheck, seeing all the people on the beach with their kids and giving them an early show was pretty cool.”
Citing Southern California as one of the most important areas to launch his career, Johnson brought his family along to the festival, and met a number of extended family friends who live in the area as well. Though it’s a more intimate crowd than what he’s used to headlining on his own — he performed at the Hollywood Bowl less than two months ago — Johnson finds the area conducive to his sound and his comfort with the area as major plusses to the Ohana experience.
“The Bonnaroos and the random festivals where I’ve never been are fun because I can see new places,” he says. “Something like this, so much is about who is playing the festival. Right off the bat, I knew if Eddie was curating it, it was going to be fun. As soon as we heard about it, we were going to make a weekend of it. This is where it all started for us.”
The 43-year-old spent the summer touring ahead of All the Light Above It Too. Johnson planned on releasing it in June before he hit the road, but it wasn’t ready he says with a smile and chuckle. In the four years between records (“I didn’t want to rush them, I wanted to write them when they felt natural”), the singer/songwriter has been busy with other projects and spending time with his family. His Brushfire label released The Smog of the Sea, a documentary to which he contributed a song earlier this year. As one would expect, his current album is full of political, social commentary.
“I have a song on there called ‘Can the World Not Afford to Sleep Anymore,' which is always what it’s like now,” he explains. “Entertainment and politics have blended into one thing. It can be a negative thing, and it could be a positive thing too. We all should be paying attention to politics, so on the bright side with all of the craziness, it’s gotten people to get more involved.”
After talking about climate change and the devastation of the recent hurricanes, Johnson lightens the mood and pivots back to the festival. “It’s great to see this festival do things environmentally that align with us. Being that they’re friends, it’s great to see them doing it too. Sometimes we play festivals that don’t do all of it, and we try to push some environmental stuff to be part of the festival since touring does leave such a big footprint. That’s the give and take of playing a festival, but this one is doing a lot of great things.”
The colloquial nature and synergy between performers extended beyond the lineup bill. Many of the performers were milling about the venue and could be seen checking out other sets. The chill vibes extended beyond the beachfront layout. Intimate, but confined, the area was comfortable enough for Johnson (“I can blend in really easy”) and his family to venture out anonymously. He took in Ray LaMontagne’s set on Saturday night unimpeded and even put a young festivalgoer up on his shoulders to take in the action.
Vedder himself popped up a number of times throughout the weekend, including a guest spot during Johnson’s Sunday night headlining set for a version of “Constellation.” Ahead of his Saturday night set, Vedder texted Johnson to join him with an ensemble group for a version of “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
“I didn’t even know I was coming out,” he admits. “We (he and Vedder) didn’t get a chance to see each other before the show and then I saw he sent me a text to join him on ‘Rockin’ in the Free World.’ I saw it after his set was halfway done so I ran backstage to figure out the chords real quick.”
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On top of hanging out with friends, being on the OC coast gives Johnson a chance to surf. Unsurprisingly, the Oahu-native is pretty good at that exercise.
“I didn’t surf this morning, I had come straight here,” he laments. “But if we’re stuck in the middle of a city, we can’t do that. I can’t complain — it’s not like I need to surf every day. The thing that is perfect about a festival like this is that Kelly and Eddie, we’ll all go for a surf at some point today. You can’t beat that vibe.”
As he finishes his coffee and is set to leave the backstage area, Johnson takes a look at his backstage area, which is equipped with a few picnic tables, some palm trees and several trees, he stops to look before it’s time to take a break before a game of Gin Rummy beckons.
“This show wasn’t in the middle of a tour, and it all kind of happened backwards,” he says as the area starts to get slightly fuller. “Since I lagged on making the record, I toured ahead of it and and being able to to come here after, on the beach, worked out.”