Jack Johnson wore a natural grown straw hat given to him by a concert goer during an impromtu two number set to reward those fans who were lined up at the ecology related booths near the concert grounds.

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

Surf-rocker riding the green wave

  • Article by: JON BREAM
  • Star Tribune
  • June 23, 2008 - 12:17 AM

SOMERSET, WIS. - Wait a minute! There is a half-eaten hamburger in the recycling bin along with plastic beer cups. And there are empty water bottles in the waste container with uneaten French fries and well-eaten corncobs.

Isn't the Jack Johnson concert supposed to be the greenest concert -- the most eco-conscious -- in the history of pop music?

Well, it is. That's why Johnson, 33, has been dubbed the jolly green giant of the music business by Billboard magazine. But his concert Sunday on a wide stretch of grass at River's Edge tubing park required a bit of extra greening.

"Can you recycle a corn dog stick?" asked Allison Monroe, 27, of Maple Grove, as she deposited it in a waste container. She then proceeded to the water station where she filled up her plastic bottle. "I've never been to a concert so environmentally friendly," she said.

As Johnson urged in a pre-concert e-mail to ticket-buyers, Monroe carpooled (seven in one vehicle). At the concert, she bought a reusable Johnson tote bag and a bottle of water. And she got her concert passport stamped at the water station and various information booths (Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, Student Peace Alliance, register to vote, etc.).

She was hoping to land a seat onstage for Johnson's performance.

Surfer dude-turned-singer-songwriter Johnson may be the mellowest rock star in history (think Dave Matthews meets James Taylor on Jimmy Buffett's boat), but he's become a huge star, who headlined at this summer's biggest U.S. rock festivals, Bonnaroo and Coachella. He is also determined to "plant some seeds" to get young people -- from the toddlers who fell for his songs in the 2006 "Curious George" movie to the teens and 20-somethings who dominated Sunday's crowd of 20,000 -- to think about their roles in the environment and take positive steps.

"We want to lessen the negative [environmental impact] of our tour," he said backstage. "This tour feels greener."

Johnson last played in Somerset in 2005, and he has upgraded the requirements in his nine-page "EnviroRider." While some artists ask promoters for an obscure brand of German beer, a new supply of underwear and socks, and, most famously, M&Ms without the brown ones, Johnson requests such things as fluorescent lightbulbs and water efficient showers backstage, separate bins for waste and recycling (with biodegradable bags), an eco-crew to check tire air pressure for attendees and that all leftover food be donated to local food banks.

Some aspects to make River's Edge more eco-friendly were easy -- such as VIP parking for hybrid cars.

"Setting up the water refill station was the biggest challenge," said Minneapolis promoter Sue McLean, referring to how a pipe was run from the dressing room compound to a create 13-faucet watering trough. However, she wasn't able to get the kind of recyclable cups requested.

"Some things are mandatory, some suggestions and some penalties," she said.

Yes, there is a followup. Two weeks after the concert, Johnson's people check back to make sure the promoters complied with waste disposal and recycling requirements. If not, the promoter is required to donate $500 to a local environmental organization. Thus far, there haven't been any fines on the tour.

Driving the green bus

Other music stars have jumped on the green bandwagon. Although he's known for smoking that green weed, Willie Nelson has been a proponent of other green issues, particularly using bio-diesel fuel in tour buses. In fact, he is opening his own bio-diesel truck stop in Texas this summer. Dave Matthews computes how much energy his concert used at each site and then makes a donation to local renewable energy organizations afterward to compensate.

Johnson has been using the bio-diesel fuel in his tour buses and trucks. When he built his recording studio in Los Angeles, he turned to recycled timbers for the paneling and used-denim for insulation; the Solar Powered Plastic Plant has skylights and, as the name suggests, is powered via solar panels.

Longtime Minneapolis eco-activist Michael Martin, whose MusicMatters firm has served as the green-campaign director for Johnson's tour, said significant strides have been made in the music business since he first became involved with Concerts for the Environment nearly 20 years ago.

"In 1990, 2000 and 2005, I had to educate people about biodiesel and global warming," he said Thursday evening while Johnson serenaded the throng with his mellow music. "This time, everybody knows."

In addition to being eco-friendly, Johnson is fan-friendly. On Sunday, nearly three hours before he was scheduled to take the stage, he and two sideman showed up for an impromptu two-song performance in front of the information booths.

"That was amazing," beamed Mark Schilling, 29, of Waterloo, Iowa. "I was at the U.S. Department of Peace [booth] and I saw him out of the corner of my eye. I got so close I could reach out and touch him. Now I'm going back to the Department of Peace; we didn't get into great detail."

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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