For his final outings the cult musician has formed star-studded backing bands who on this occasion valiantly struggle to stay with his changing moods
There is lo-fi and then there is Daniel Johnston. A cult underground figure on the US music scene for over 30 years whose fans once including Kurt Cobain not only look past his reedy voice and rubbery guitar playing, but actively enjoy those erratic aspects of his music.
Billed as his final tour (although the singer has denied this), Johnstons current set of dates sees him drop anchor in major US cities and intriguingly team up with local musicians, many of whom command underground respect themselves.
In New Orleans he played with the citys legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, while in Washington hardcore outfit Fugazi backed him up. But the lack of rehearsal time this approach allows for has worried some of his collaborators. Doug Martsch of indie rockers Built to Spill, who will play with Johnston in the Pacific north-west next month, told the New York Times he was not psyched about the idea of only meeting up with Johnston on the day of the show. We dont believe theres any magic in music, he said. It takes hard work and practice. It doesnt look like were going to get much of that, so were going to have to hope for the magic.
There would probably be an element of risk involved even with a proper rehearsal schedule. As viewers of the award-winning 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston screened before each show on this tour will know, the singer has struggled with mental health problems throughout his adult life, been hospitalised a number of times, and during one terrifying incident threw the keys out of the window of his fathers private plane while it was in flight, forcing him to crash-land. He has recently seemed in pretty poor health and a live review from New Orleans two weeks ago suggested he was struggling to make the ephemeral nature of the tour work.
Its reasonable to ask whether Johnston should be performing at all right now, and there is a sense of tension at Town Hall when he takes the stage, his hands shaking and his diction somewhat slurred, a greying, rotund figure in a red sweatshirt and black trousers.
Backed here by a five-piece indie-rock lineup featuring Joan as Police Woman and one of the members of Beirut, Johnston barely looks up from his lyric sheet for the first few songs which include crowd-pleasers such as Like a Monkey in a Zoo and Speeding Motorcycle, once incongruously used in a Target commercial. He visibly gains in confidence during a raucous stomp through My Life is Starting Over, when his lyrics My fame is spreading cross the land / Now Ive got me a band are greeted with a supportive and enthusiastic cheer from the crowd.
A key aspect of his music is its combination of melancholy and childlike joy, and for the most part the backing band approach it with a gentle hand. They highlight Johnstons vocal melody that has seen him covered by artists as disparate as Lana del Rey and Tom Waits, recreating the singers toy-like keyboard parts and trebly guitar, but adding a strong backline and wrapping many of the songs in delicate violin lines from Joan Wasser.
This works well with a conventional rock song like the Lennon-esque My Life is Starting Over or the rallying cry of Dont Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances, with its propulsive high-speed coda. And more funereal ballads, such as Story of an Artist, are given a minimalist treatment that leaves the focus on the singer.
But the eccentric, shifting rhythms of some of Johnstons other early songs such as the skiffly Running Water and Casper pose a challenge for the band as they struggle to keep time with their frontman. The band are really only able to succeed with these songs by imposing orthodox tempos on to them as they do halfway through Walking the Cow but this stifles and flattens out some of what makes Johnstons music so arresting and unusual.
The problem is most obvious during a truncated version of Funeral Home, Johnstons blackly comic reworking of Springsteens Cadillac Ranch, which seems to end abruptly after repeated attempts by Johnston and the band to sync up.
But by the end of the short gig Johnston feels sufficiently self-assured to joke that his last song is a special Christmas wish for you all, and he bows out with a tender acoustic version of one of his best-known and most-covered numbers, True Love will Find you in the End. Its characteristic of a certain type of Johnston song wistful but ultimately optimistic and the audience, singing along, seem to be beaming its message of resilience and hope back towards the performer on the stage.
- Playing Vic Theatre, Chicago, Illinois, on 20 October; and then touring
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