Cult hero Daniel Johnston captivates First Avenue Audience

By Peter Valelly

Daniel Johnston walked on stage at First Avenue last Friday to raucous applause, but before he reached the microphone he had to turn back and grab the guitar he’d forgotten to bring with him. His second entrance was greeted with even more crowd enthusiasm. Johnston trembled and stuttered between songs, started resolutely but uncomfortably ahead while singing, and played fairly few songs-perhaps a dozen overall, split into one acoustic set and another with a full band.This may sound disappointing, but for the audience cult of Daniel Johnston — which has probably quadrupled in size since the 2005 documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”-it was, in fact, exhilarating.
The party line on Daniel Johnston in music-geek circles, and more particularly in music critic circles, is that he’s a tortured genius, an outsider musician crafting works of unseemly beauty out of his own warped pain. The documentary was witty, informative and a great introduction to Johnston’s life and work, but it refined and regurgitated this myth to a massive audience.

The myth is appealing, but uncomfortably objectifying. Johnson suffers from manic depression, and the disease has had an enormous presence not only in his music, but in the disappointing trajectory of his early career.

It is a peculiar facet of the myth, then, that many Johnston advocates solemnly swear that with the right promotion, his songs could be huge pop hits. To me, one of the most fascinating things about his music is the fact that, despite their relentless appeal, almost none of his songs could be pop hits. His melodies are either gorgeous but rudimentary, or barely existent, with little middle ground. His voice is bizarrely high-pitched. His lyrics often trade in childish melodrama and heavy Christian rhetoric. In short-and to be fair, I may be reiterating the same objectification I just criticized-Johnston’s appeal lies in the relentless weirdness of his music.

But at First Ave, Daniel Johnston seemed to morph into exactly what his cult-presumably, most of the audience-needed him to be: a weird pop star. Johnston’s high, reedy tenor soared above the First Ave crowd, his fists balled and quaking at his sides as friend Brett Hartenbach provided quiet guitar accompaniment and a packed house watched with adoring glee. Older songs like “Life in Vain,” the oft-covered “Speeding Motorcycle” and the sublime “Living Life” fleshed out his set for an audience more fixated on his boombox recordings than his recent dalliances with studio pop.

The full-band mini-set was slightly more awkward. But for the encore, Johnston whipped out a beautiful acoustic rendition of his most well-known track, “True Love Will Find You in the End.” Introduced unassumingly as “a Christmas wish,” it sounded perfect and was both the most elated moment of the concert for the audience and the least uncomfortable for Johnston.

As a concert, the show Friday night was a great experience. As a slice of the ever-growing Daniel Johnston myth, it was sublime.