Daniel Johnston at the Henry Fonda Theater, Hollywood, CA, October 24th, 2009 | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston at the Henry Fonda Theater, Hollywood, CA, October 25th, 2009

Oct 28, 2009 Bookmark and Share

Sometimes, it can be easy to take a concert at face value. A guy comes in with an instrument, plays a few songs, tells a few stories, and then everyone goes out for drinks and small talk. This process of thoughtless artistic consumption becomes significantly more difficult when that artist is Daniel Johnston.

As fans of the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston will recognize, despite a seemingly simplistic world view dotted with appearances by Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Mountain Dew, nothing in Johnston's life is ever simple. A severe manic depressive, Johnston has spent years alternating between fighting and submitting to a host a personal demonsa battle that alternately colors his music with a near-justifiable self pity and an unbelievable spirit of light-heartedness.

Of course, at the Henry Fonda, both performer and audience were in good spirits.  The curtain swept open, Johnston already seated strumming away-chin tilted downward, eyes squinting at his ever present lyric sheet, large belly spilling around the edges of his guitar. Midway though opener "Lost in my Infinite Memory," the crowd cheered, spurred on by the lyric "I love you all but hate myself." The first trickle in a tidal wave of adoration had begun.

It was clear that Johnston feeds on the crowd's excitement. As they chuckled at his more self-deprecating lines, ("...Or am I a little crazy for you?" from song "Silly Love" got a particularly boisterous response.) his lopsided smile grew broader. Someone begged for a story, and Johnston replied with this gem, "I once had a dream that a man was sentenced to death for trying to commit suicide! I was in the back of the courtroom screaming "No, no!"

Completing the opening two songs, Johnston invited another guitarist to take over his duties, instead opting to concentrate on singing. He sat, hands trembling, eyes never leaving his lyrics. Where his ability to hold a tune failed, or his writing faltered, Johnston's emotional raw delivery carried him though. This was never clearer than the first cover song of the evening and first set's closer, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," where Johnston's delivery became part desperate homage, part confessional. The next day, I would go back to criticizing far greater technical musicians for far smaller infractionsbut at that moment, there wasn't a soul in the house who could argue with such an uninhibited show of sincerity.

After a brief intermission, Johnston returned to the stage with opener Hymns, who served as his backing band. Looking surprisingly young, they often proved their worth, following Johnston's lead even whenin his enthusiasmhe broke time with the music. Together, they trotted out Johnson standards, including "Speeding Motorcycle" and "Man Obsessed"a song about Johnston's longtime object of romantic infatuation, Laurie. Introduced Johnston, "There was this guy who met this girl who already had a boyfriend. He didn't know that boyfriend was a mortician. So here's a song about that." His frank explanation allowed the audience a chance to laugh at tongue-in-cheek line, "The only way you could get her to look at you is to die."

While the final encore (surprisingly touching "True Love Will Find You in The End") would revert to the show's guitar and voice opening formula, it's clear that Johnston has reached a point in his career where he'd prefer to "rock out," a goal aided by material from his new album, Is and Always Was.  Flailing and bouncing around the stage, one couldn't help but smile at the energy and enthusiasm that betrayed his years.

All things considered, Johnston is an unlikely rock star-so much in fact that as he left the stage for the last time he was careful to bundle up his lyrics binder and take it with him. Perhaps that's why the most telling moment of the evening came during the second Beatles cover-song "Revolution." Johnston gleefully bounced, shouting opening lyrics "You say you want a revolution/Well you know/We'd all want to change the world." Change the world? Looking around at the hordes of engaged fans, it became clear thatat least for the eveninghe already had.






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