Jack Johnson & Friends – Best of Kokua Festival

When a compilation is billed as being by Jack Johnson and friends the last thing you expect is for an acoustic guitar to steal all the limelight. But this humble instrument is found on every track in many different forms. It’s often slowed down, sped up, plucked and even used to play slide and this is to create music that is folk, reggae, country and pop. But Johnson doesn’t seem to mind, he realises that we’re all friends and this set is in aid of a very good cause.

Some nine years ago, Johnson and his wife Kim set up the Kokua Hawaii Foundation to support the education of children and adults in schools and communities about their environment and homeland. The aim was to make kids lifelong stewards of the earth and concerts are held every year on Earth Day with local and well-renowned musicians. This set alone reads like a dream line-up with everyone from Bob Marley’s sons- Damian and Ziggy, to old masters like Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal and Willie Nelson, to younger guns like Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper.

The listener is treated to 13 mellow songs that are all sunshine crisp and a smooth kind of clean. It’s soul music in the chicken soup for the soul kind of way as the proceedings strike a chord by leaving everyone feeling much more connected to the cause and the greater good in general. It is very little wonder then that “Kokua” actually means to extend help to others because this lot achieve so much by doing what they do best, playing music that is a mix of originals and covers, including many by the music man of the hour, Jack Johnson himself.

The album plays out like one complete concert. The cohesiveness is spot-on, as the editors have added little bits of stage banter to introduce and thank the artists, which only adds to the live-show feel. In reality it was recorded at numerous festivals in Honolulu between 2005 and 2010. The gigs sound like a cross between a typical folk benefit, a communal hippie gathering and a breezy day by the beach where you watch the ocean lap at the sand. It really is a sun-kissed celebration for Mother Earth, all peace, love and a pure calm.

Better Together sets the scene with its message of love being the answer, as this group work together for a common good. Although it boasts harmonica and bongos, the content (at least lyrically) seems to at least partially mirror John Lennon’s Power To The People, except that the greater focus is on communities rather than fighting the powers that be. Cry Cry Cry turns the spotlight on the younger generation with talk of setting the children free in a scene rather reminiscent of Teach Your Children, made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

A Jimmy Buffett cover is found on A Pirate Looks At Forty– another acoustic ballad thrown into the mix. Similarly, a pleasant, easy listening track is offered in Take It Easy by Jackson Browne. The hit was once made famous by The Eagles, but here it gets a rewrite to incorporate the cool, island surrounds in the distance. On Island Style and Breakdown we get two musicians you’d never thought you’d see in the same sentence, local musician, John Cruz and ukulele virtuoso, Jake Shimbakuro, respectively.

The compilation is rounded out by some reggae with Welcome To Jamrock, followed by a Bob Marley cover on High Tide Or Low Tide. On Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain we sail off into the sunset but not before the Bob Dylan cover and sing-along that is I Shall Be Released. By the end, Johnson has proven that he knows his place in the proceedings, because he is quite content to lead some songs and take a back seat on others. He’s so easy and laidback, he really knows when it’s appropriate to join in and when to let others have their moment in the sun.

To date, the Kokua Hawaii Foundation has funded recycling bins, healthy school snacks and educational field trips back to nature. It’s great to know that this compilation will contribute more of these necessary things to the people that need it. Plus, it allows fans to experience some interesting collaborations, fine music and some gorgeous album artwork (on recycled paper naturally) to boot. Ultimately, Best Of Kokua Hawaii Festival is a mellow and carefree celebration where the community are lead by one happy Jack.