Halfway through the encore of Jack Johnson's set at the Idaho Center Amphitheatre, the superstar cut short a song with a violent cough.
"Sorry," Johnson told the audience of 9,000 people. "A bug flew into my mouth."
That bug wasn't the only creature sucked into his intoxicating brand of laid-back pop music. Johnson-a former professional surfer who is now a huge draw among fans of Dave Matthews and Ben Harper-captured the throng's attention from the first strum of his acoustic guitar and didn't let go for nearly two hours. The air was thick with good vibes and pot smoke even before Johnson took the stage. The Bay Area band Animal Liberation Orchestra got the crowd going with organ-driven jams. Keyboardist Zach Gill provided the spark for ALO's tunes, which sounded a lot like legendary jazz-groovers Medeski, Martin & Wood with vocals. The band nailed neo-soul with "Girl I Wanna Lay You Down" and ended the set with blistering guitar work by Dan Lebowitz.
Johnson's set was the people's choice, but the best collection of tunes of the night belonged to Matt Costa, who played after ALO. Costa shifted effortlessly between styles, kicking off with a bluesy number and ending with atmospheric rock. In between, he jumped from power-pop to twang, echoing everyone from Big Star to Buddy Holly. The Beatles-esque melody of "Oh Dear" was excellent, and it was too bad that much of the crowd refused to pay attention until Johnson hit the stage.
But everyone sat up straight when Johnson sauntered out. A native Hawaiian, he started playing guitar at 14 and was a champion surfer before he stepped behind the camera to make surf films. His mellow tunes served as a natural backdrop to his movies, but he was vaulted into the music business when Harper and G. Love took a shine to his songs. His songs touch on relationships, social issues and religion, but mostly are gentle reminders that the world moves too fast and that everything will be alright. That was certainly the theme on Friday night, as Johnson put on a workmanlike performance of his most-loved songs, with his fans perched on every word. By the time he got around to the blues break in "Flake," the sun was setting orange and the crowd on the lawn looked like one living organism. The middle of his set featured perky accordion on "Banana Pancakes," and gorgeous lap steel work on "Constellations." He also occasionally veered into other folks' songs, interpreting the Temptations, the Cars and Sublime in his own breezy style. By the end of his main set, Johnson's songs started to run together and his limited range became evident. But fans insisted on an encore and he delivered, playing songs without his band. The simplicity of Johnson's persona shone through in the waning minutes of the show and then slunk off stage and into the night to spread positive vibes to the next wave of fans in the next town.