2008 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Daniel Johnston Fulfills His Legend As Indie-Rock Curiosity

Cult Singer-Songwriter Fascinates Crowd With Poppy, Hour-Long Set

MILWAUKEE — Staring at Daniel Johnston performing on stage, one can’t escape a vague and unsettling feeling that something isn’t quite right.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Some of the fans of the Texas-based singer-songwriter who showed up by the hundreds on Thursday night came to hear Johnston’s angelic, awkward voice and his highly personal take on Beatles-obsessed pop. Others came to gaze upon the star of a recent documentary that shares the fascinating details about his life, music and battles with mental illness. But, in the end, what everyone witnessed was a sobering reality left a feeling like a rock in your stomach.

Here was a plump, middle-aged underground rock hero whose hands were trembling violently. He rarely made reassuring eye contact with the audience or his bandmates. His body slumped slightly to the left. His voice broke often and his speech sometimes slurred because of tooth loss. His skills on the guitar and piano were often alarmingly ramshackle.

Expectations are one thing, but seeing a person in the flesh is quite another. Despite this uncomfortable realization, those who gathered for his hour-long performance at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom witnessed a show that lived up to his legend. Johnston performed like a savant, marveling us with his irresistible melodies and deceptively simple wordplay. But, his concert was also something more. Along with the addictive tunes, we caught a glimpse of the human being who has struggled every moment of his life to express his art despite many obstacles.

No matter the years of trouble that have hounded Johnston and his guardians, he is more famous now than ever before. The 2005 release of excellent documentary, “The Devil And Daniel Johnston,” brought him a larger fanbase than the one inspired by Kurt Cobain wearing a Daniel Johnston T-shirt in the early ’90s.But, even with his success, the demons haven’t left him.

One could see it at first glimpse. He puttered onto the stage in a zipped-up tight purple track jacket, a packet of lyric sheets under his arm, and made straight for the microphone. He ignored the musicians already onstage and began to sing an acappella rendition of “Speeding Motorcycle” in his lisp-y, wobbly voice. The band kicked in a couple of lines with a classic Phil Spector-style punchy rhythm. Johnston clenched the mic with both hands as the five backing musicians struck snappy chords and rode a Beatle-y backbeat. Such was his focus that he wasn’t out of tune but definitely out of sync with his musicians. He was in his own world. Most of the time, no audience was acknowledged or needed.

Just as a groove was established, the hired hands left the stage and Johnston picked up a tiny acoustic guitar that looked like a toy against his large frame. The full extent of his eccentricities was visible as he roughly strummed the strings and sang “Mean Girls Give Pleasure” and another Beach Boys-influenced tune with the nasal monotone of Bob Dylan. When he switched to the piano in the back corner of the stage, he played the jarring barroom piano chords almost like he was trying to cause discomfort for the audience as he crooned sweetly and earnestly. The crowd continually cheered him on, but initially letting their sense of anticipation best their good judgment.

Putting Johnston’s obvious artistic talents aside, there is something about the experience of seeing him in concert that parallels scenes in “The Elephant Man.” Because of his mental history and the unusualness of his songs and performance style, Johnston is a true indie-rock curiosity. Of course, we must replace the prim and proper Victorians that dote on John Merrick with Johnston’s audience of well-heeled hipsters. As the Johnston documentary thoroughly captures, Johnston’s illness has wreaked havoc on his loved ones and business associates and produced much heartache. From the vantage point of those in the seats, however, we are at a safe distance and we can simply admire the innocence and ingenuity of his songs. At the end of the night, we walk out with no strings attached. Concert-goers can feel sympathy, but don’t have to get their hands dirty. His novelty status does a disservice not only to his talents but also to the love and patience of his family and friends.

Even Johnston’s stage banter took on painful irony. When Johnston slyly cracked, “What city is this?” many fans initially laughed, then swiftly suspected that Johnston probably really didn’t know.

The uncomfortable vibe lifted a bit when Johnston’s old college pal Brett Hartenbach joined him on guitar. Hartenbach was not only an ideal interpreter for Johnston, but a calming influence for those in the crowd who thought the performance was missing the mark too often early on. The guitarist’s style was highly sympathetic to Johnston and yet served to soften the music’s rougher edges. Johnston could concentrate on the words while Hartenbach gracefully conjured the intended melodies.

Hartenbach took the “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” chord progression of “Silly Love” and remade it into the exquisitely sappy ditty that Johnston always envisioned it to be. Johnston sang the lines with a mix of tenderness and intensity that demonstrated how simple words strung together could have powerful meaning. In contrast, Hartenbach deployed some James Taylor finger-picking on “Grievances,” which intending to both lighten and add more melody to the vibrant, needy emotions explicit in Johnston’s verses.

So many of the album versions of Johnston’s songs sound like they were recorded in a closet that it was a marvel to hear them in a live setting. A kick drum injected excitement into the arrangement, the guitars growled a little and at the center was Johnston howling with naive passion. To help facilitate this, opening act John Sieger and his band, the Subcontinentals, served as Johnston’s impromptu backup group for several songs. The Milwaukee locals, guided by Hartenbach on acoustic guitar, seemed tentative on most cuts, but with occasional flourishes of strength.

During their own set, Sieger and company performed a non-offensive brand of ’60s rock. Sieger had a bluesy, John Fogerty-esque vocal delivery while his band strove to impress with some bar-band originals. In stark contrast were fellow Milwaukee band the Scarring Party, who was first on the bill and a much more memorable performance. The four-piece boasted an accordion, tuba, banjo and drums and played Salvation Army band music gleaned from their great-great-grandparents’ Victrola. The gangly singer sang like he thought he was pre-“Jazz Singer” Al Jolson and here were his Vaudeville escapees playing appropriately enough in the decaying splendor of the Turner Hall Ballroom

Johnston, too, had history on his mind when, in a pleasant surprise, he sang a version of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” The song’s melancholic, romantic tone is the Rosetta Stone for Johnston’s own catalog. If John Lennon was trying to incite a crowd to engage in a nasally sing-along when he shouted “hey!” during the song’s chorus, Johnston yells it like he’s warning that there’s a fire in the theater. Lennon seems resigned to his fate, but Johnston the eternal romantic thinks it’s still not too late. The performance was also enthralling because of how casual Johnston treats his own songs — driving through them with power and fury — to see him play a song by his hero and to treat the source material with student-like reverence.

When it came time to play his most famous songs, Johnston didn’t disappoint and mostly stayed true to the original arrangements. “Casper The Friendly Ghost” had an irresistible rhythm that when combined with a full-band sound, makes it plain that this track — if re-recorded — could have been an MTV hit back in the ’80s. The mood was subdued when Johnston returned for an encore and played “True Love Will Find You In The End.” With Hartenback plucking his guitar strings and Johnston singing like he was in a church choir, he gave the audience a hope-filled sendoff.

This sense of optimism was undermined by the fact that we know such a happy ending will always remain beyond his grasp.

Remaining Daniel Johnston Tour Dates:

  • Friday, Feb. 8, Minneapolis
  • Saturday, Feb. 9, Omaha, Neb.
  • Wednesday, Feb. 20, Boston
  • Thursday, Feb. 21, New York City
  • Friday, Feb. 22, Philadelphia
  • Saturday, Feb. 23, Washington, D.C.
  • Sunday, Feb. 24, Baltimore

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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