This review almost didn’t happen. I was hemming and hawwing over whether to shill out the 17 large for the day-of tickets, with my interest mainly being to see Lizz King and Jason Dove. Headliner Daniel Johnston was on my radar, but in the most peripheral way possible. I have not seen the Sundance-lauded film The Devil and Daniel Johnston so my knowledge of his life and music was very limited when making the decision to goto the Ottobar this past Sunday.
I probably made one of my wisest choices so far this year.
If given just one word to describe this show, I would have to choose genuine. The quality of music on this bill was outstanding, far and away one of the strongest I’ve seen in years. As I walked towards the Ottobar, a few minutes after Lizz King’s set time, I was hopeful that she had not come on. The place was dead silent. But as I walked through the door, I could see the reason. King was on stage and delivering a captivating performance that had the room so silent you could hear the floorboards creak. Nobody even tossed away beer bottles. This was going to be something special…
Lizz King is a pixie and an angel. It’s a shame that in this day, in order to get noticed, you have to have a strong gimmick in addition to a gorgeous, timeless voice. For all the Winestones that get attention, a deserving gem like King is swept under the rug.
Let’s remedy that, shall we? King’s music is some of the most barebones, heart-wide-open stuff I’ve heard…in a good and completely disarming way; she goes from banjo to ukulele to what I think was an electric tenor banjo, alternating playing some groovy, delicious computerized beats track as the musical foundation of some of her songs. Her voice is warm, like Billie Holiday and the best voices of old found on gramophone records or streaming through the vacuum-tube radios, and haunting like Fiona Apple and the other female vocal prodigies of the present. The whole picture is distinct, something I imagine sounds not unlike an electrified, breaking music box mating with the aforementioned gramophone jazz records and a healthy dose of desolate country and blues twang and instrumentation likely inspired by her time in West Virginia. She is a unique sound that is nothing short of refreshing.
My theory on Jason Dove is that he listened/listens to and loved/loves him a lot of Elvis Costello. On a normal night, Dove and his Whips would likely be a highlight of the show. His deftly arranged rock, influenced strongly by Zeppelin, Rush and 60s and 70s rock in general, has impeccable pacing and culls from a wide variety of rock’s sub-genres. But sandwiched between two master manipulators of heart and soul, the act comes off as less-than-inspiring.
And finally, there was Daniel Johnston.
He started off playing a stuttering guitar cadence, then layering on his characteristically hesitant vocals. His seemingly faltering performance and frail appearance is striking. I liken its role to a meat tenderizer preparing a choice cut of beef to be easily infused with the chef’s choice of flavors. From the moment Johnston steps on stage, you, as listener, are ready to be moved.
But when phrased this way, one might think Johnston was conforming to a calculated PR move, constructing an image predisposing his audience to affectation. Hardly. All this meta analysis is post performance. When you are there, amidst the near capacity, cricket-quiet room of fans anxiously awaiting Johnston’s every word and note, you only know that this man is anything but false. Calm, yet mildly anxious, as Johnston begins into a song his voice begins to quiver and a mild palsy sets into his arms. He closes his eyes and you can almost see tears as his palsy begins to set in more vigorously. The audience follows suit.
These things ebb and swell with the tone of the song, and it breaks your heart to see someone so genuine and earnest in communicating their emotions through song; the fact that every song seems to take an exhaustive toll on Johnston mentally and physically only magnifies his tragedy and inspiration as an artist. This is likely related to Johnston’s storied history of mental illness, struggling with bipolar disorder. But I have a feeling that this only serves to intensify Johnston’s inner artist; I truly believe he is, at his core, one of the most pure examples of an artist in our age.
Johnston single-handedly upturns all we have come to expect from a phenomenal live show. The prevailing concept of rock super-stardom is firmly entrenched in popular culture, all this talk of “stage presence” and effusive charisma and stage antics to distract and entertain…But when you witness someone performing raw, naked, and primal emotions, you realize that all these things are not necessary for a captivating performance. All you need is a man brave and willing enough to bear it all through only his brutally expressive and earnest lyrics and music.
One cannot underestimate the power of Johnston’s use simply phrased lyrics and musical arrangements. “Direct” as some critics like to describe it, others have called it “childlike.” But the fact of the matter is that the key to Johnston’s poeticism and profundity, is his simplicity. Johnston uses the strengths of seeing through a child’s eyes. The extremes of childhood, the purity and sincerity of emotion, the feeling of boundlessness yet the haunting notion of constraint, the clarity of vision through simplicity…all these things are what can make a “childlike” observation, much more than an inexperienced and immature exercise.
The man can communicate an idea or emotion in a few words or phrases, that might take another artist with a more advanced vocabulary nearly an entire song to form. Listener interpretation has nearly as much to do with this as Johnston’s expert, vulnerable, perfectly imperfect delivery.
Throughout the show, Johnston alternated being accompanied by guitarist and college friend Brett Hartenbach, and openers Lizz King and Jason Dove. Dove and the Whips were pitch perfect as Johnston’s backing band and Hartenbach was extremely capable as well. But the highlights for me were undoubtedly when Johnston played solo and with Lizz King. Johnston’s solo guitar and vocals moved people like few other things I have seen. And his duet with Lizz King was one of the most precious moments ever, King obviously giddy with the prospect of playing with him.
All in all, Johnston’s performance was an inspiration as an artist and a human being. He captures the essence of great music and great humanity. It is no wonder he has become such an influential and revered figure to so many other more recognizable names in music, from Bowie to Bright Eyes to Eddie Vedder, Spiritualized and more. He simultaneously defines and redefines the status of icon.
Bez’s Take on Daniel Johnston:
Bring up Daniel Johnston, artist and musician, and I can’t help but think of the analogue of William Blake, artist and writer. Both Johnston and Blake are sparked by that intense flame of inspiration that overshadows natural ability. But, also, both are unfortunately viewed in the context of mentally ill people for whom artistic creativity was a mere manifestation of inner demons. This idea may be overly simplistic, or even flat out wrong. Like so many other common sense beliefs, the notion that mental illness, a troubled past, or a tendency toward introspection makes a person more creative, just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Sure, there may be precedent for this belief based on fictional characters. Aren’t King Lear and Hamlet closets to the truth when others think they are insane? Doesn’t Durer make it absolutely clear how tortured, troubled, and tormented…yet so divinely genius the artist is in Melencolia I?
A huge obstacle in rethinking mental illness is this mistaken belief that somehow the most creative people are also the most sick. And mix this up with the artistic/bohemian predilection toward subverting ideas of happiness, and you can get a whole sub-culture. Just look at Goths. Aren’t they just aesthetes playing at mental illness? Or take Ian Curtis as an example. Now his suicide is viewed in the context of his lyrics, and his lyrics are viewed in the context of his suicide. His legacy has been twisted into a tale of martyrdom. In short his depression, and subsequent suicide, has became so crucial to anyone’s understanding of his music.
I am an avowed formalist. I can’t stand any contextualizing, historicizing, etc. In the end any biographical detail about the performer’s life doesn’t factor into my understanding of the music. Like D. H. Lawrence said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, trust the tale, not the teller.
Listening to Johnston it never occurred to me what his mental health history was like. It just didn’t come into my head.
His lack of singing ability actually worked as a positive, placing such emphasis on the words, rather than the manner of delivery. His stage presence was nonexistent, but again this actually works for him. This too stresses the words. Johnston performed solo for the first two songs, with just a small guitar. Again, his musical chops aren’t really there, but his strumming somehow carries more weight than ten prog rock guitar solos.
Johnston’s musical work has such purity. Middle aged and obviously suffering from Type 2 diabetes, he’s not going to win the hip award, nor do you get the impression he’s in it for fame. Rather his intentions seem to be purely to perform some songs he wrote, that others might find interesting, too. No need to be musically innovative, or put forth some powerful political message. Just simple songs about motorcycles, cartoon ghosts…but man, those songs were good.
Highlights of the night:
Johnston covering John Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”
Johnston performing “Casper the Friendly Ghost” from the Kids soundtrack
As Johnston mentioned something about the next song being about a motorcycle, a rather drunk, but still enthusiastic fan standing by stage right yelled “OH SHIT!!!” In a weird way his excitement was contagious.
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