Johnson and his band overcame tough odds and thorny logistics to headline the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on Saturday night, replacing late cancellation Mumford & Sons. The group overcame short notice and thorny logistics to produce a set filled with good humor, mellow vibes and a ton of hits.
"We want to dedicate this whole set to Ted Dwane and all of Mumford & Sons," Johnson said after taking the stage before tens of thousands of fans. "And we wish we could all be here playing music together. Maybe that will be next year."
Mumford & Sons was forced to pull out of its much-anticipated headline slot on Thursday after bassist Dwane underwent a surgical procedure earlier in the week to treat a blood clot on his brain. The group had hoped to keep the date in Manchester. Though Dwane is recovering, he was not ready to perform and the group was unwilling to take the stage with a replacement, leaving a large amount of money on the table.
There was much speculation among Bonnaroo organizers and watchers about how fans would react to the switch—the first headliner cancellation in 12 years of Bonnaroo. But Johnson quickly won over the crowd and kept its fickle attention with a light touch and his easygoing persona.
"Give us that one," Johnson joked after a flub late in the set. "We practiced for a couple of hours."
Bonnaroo 2013 turned out quite differently from what Johnson was expecting.
He got a phone call Thursday as he drove to the festival from organizers wondering if he'd be interested in upping his involvement.
After thinking about it, Johnson flew in his band, rehearsed some Friday night, attended a breakfast with fans in Nashville on Saturday morning and then prepped for the show. It's been two years since the four-piece played a long set, convening for just 45 minutes last year at Farm Aid.
About the only thing that seemed the worse for wear were the 38-year-old Hawaiian singer's trademark curls, which unraveled in middle Tennessee's oppressive humidity.
Heck, Johnson even had time to write a new song called "Bonnaroo" for the set, singing in part: "I had a late-night gig with ALO/It was very low stress, it was very low pro/But then the phone rang and things got strange/And my low pro was about the change/Can you get the band together in two days to play a show up on the big stage?/But I don't know, it's been a year or two since we played these tunes/What the hell, it's Bonnaroo."
A little later in the set he incorporated Mumford's "The Cave" into a medley with his song "Go On," telling the crowd: "Maybe you guys can help us with this part."
For those not into Johnson, there were plenty of other options on an exceedingly busy Saturday night that included appearances by British punker Billy Idol, Weird Al Yankovic and the Rock 'n' Soul Dance Party Superjam with Jim James and John Oates.
Mumford & Sons' folk-rock cousins The Lumineers drew one of the festival's largest crowds before Johnson took the stage. It was so large, in fact, fans on the edge of the crowd couldn't hear the band's mostly hushed, acoustic songs.
"Everybody be quiet, I'm trying to hear the band," one fan yelled as The Lumineers possibly performed a Bob Dylan song.
R&B singer R. Kelly had no trouble getting attention, though. He began his post-Johnson set by bringing dozens of chorus members on stage for a rendition of his song "Ignition." Suddenly the lights went dark and Kelly was illuminated 40 feet above, standing in the basket of a crane that hovered over the Which Stage's distinctive question mark symbol.
"They told me back stage there's no cursing here," Kelly told the crowd a little later. "I just laughed. I can't (expletive) curse?"