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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 30, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 18
Johnson and Shimabukuro shine brightly at Oahu's Kokua Festival
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Johnson and Shimabukuro shine brightly at Oahu's Kokua Festival

by Albert Rodriguez - SGN A&E Writer

2010 Kokua Festival
April 23-24
Waikiki Shell
(Honolulu, Hawaii)


News of the Kokua Festival's cancelation in 2009 saddened the hearts of Hawaiians and fans of Jack Johnson, who - as co-founder of this homegrown music event - is assured a headlining spot on the performing lineup. But Johnson more than made up for last year's absence, with help from an eclectic and impressive group of artists who rocked and rolled their way to a gem of a two-day concert last weekend, April 23-24.

Johnson, sporting a full head of wavy hair in contrast to his usual buzz cut, played similar sets on Friday and Saturday, though he altered them slightly. Surprisingly, the pop singer-songwriter only performed one new track from his upcoming album, To the Sea - the tune is called "You and Your Heart," and it has a bit of a rock edge thanks to an electric guitar vs. his standard acoustic. "Sitting, Waiting, Wishing" sounded refreshingly cool and got everyone seated in the orchestral pit up and dancing, as did the jingly tune "Bubble Toes" off his first album. From the pit to the two grassy lawn sections, you could hear fans loudly singing, "la da da da da da, la da da da da da da."

On Friday's program, "Banana Pancakes" was recorded for an Earth Day gala in Washington, D.C., during which Johnson told the televised audience that he didn't feel bad not being present in the nation's capital because he was in Hawaii. Indeed, with scorching afternoon temperatures and warm, breezy evenings, the Kokua Festival's tropical setting was a picture-perfect postcard for an eco-friendly celebration.

The lone omission on Friday, "Upside Down" from the Curious George film soundtrack, was offered on Saturday night and dedicated to high school volunteers who assisted in various chores during the festival and also participate in year-round projects such as recycling programs and clean-up outings. "Good People" was one of several cuts plucked from Johnson's In Between Dreams album and performed at the Waikiki Shell, as was "Staple It Together," which included a horrible rap solo by bassist Merlo Podlewski (the only flaw in an otherwise A+ performance by Johnson). On Saturday, the Grammy-nominated artist did a groovy cover of Steve Miller Band's "Space Cowboy," appropriately fitting for a crowd of university students, middle-aged hippies, and cheerful environmentalists.

Shimabukuro, a Hawaiian-born ukulele wiz who collaborated with Bette Midler earlier this year for a performance for the Queen of England, nearly stole the festival from Johnson, playing a dazzling roster of original and cover tunes, including George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and The Beatles' "In My Life." The tall, lean instrumentalist was the Kokua Festival's sweetest eye-candy - on Friday, he sizzled in a pair of shiny, slim denims and white short sleeve shirt - and he's certainly doing his part in bringing sexy back to Asian men. Shimabukuro almost missed the event altogether due to the recent volcanic ash travel chaos - stranded in The Netherlands, he drove to Barcelona and then flew back to Hawaii a day before the start of the festival.

He can strum a ukulele with delicate touch or he can jam on it like a rock star, as he did on the flamenco-laced piece "Let's Dance." Shimabukuro made guest appearances with Johnson, Taj Mahal, and Ziggy Marley throughout the festival and pretty much pickpocketed the spotlight from each of them. He dazzled when he joined Marley on a duet of "Beach in Hawaii" and out-sparkled Johnson on a duet of "Breakdown."

Ziggy Marley began Friday's set by introducing his mother, the legendary Rita Marley, to the thrilled crowd. His two-night appearance included "Love is My Religion" and "Redemption Song." The latter was a solid cover of a reggae standard made famous by his dad, Bob Marley. The Jamaica native also brought his small kids to the stage to perform the title track of his Grammy-winning children's album, Family Time. Not that Marley's acoustic sets were disappointing, but he didn't even touch his biggest hits like "Conscious Party," "Tomorrow People," and "Tumblin' Down" - you don't need a full band to play your best material for a sold-out audience.

Legendary blues artist Taj Mahal gave memorable back-to-back performances that included "Lovin' in My Baby's Eyes" and a fabulous rendition of "Queen Bee." Like Shimabukuro, he put Johnson away when the pair collaborated on "Further on Down the Road." Local musician Paula Fuga earned her stripes when she and Johnson sang "Country Road," and then stood out from the pack when the entire lineup closed out Friday's show with "Everything's Gonna Be Alright."

Both days of the Kokua Festival were completely sold-out at the Waikiki Shell, an amphitheatre located a block from the beach and across the street from the Honolulu Zoo. All proceeds from the event are given to the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, which fosters environmental education projects in the Aloha State, such as hands-on agricultural programs for students and nature preservancy awareness. The Kokua Hawaii Foundation, as well as the annual Kokua Festival on the island of Oahu, is co-founded by Jack Johnson and his wife, Kim.

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