Daniel Johnston's Lonely Hearts Club Band woos First Ave

Categories: Concert Review

Why do we like Daniel Johnston? Is it because we know he's had a history of being a little off? If so, give every manic-depressive off and on his meds a tape recorder and see how many take the music world by storm. Is it because a handful of musicians from the early '90s we frankly don't care that much about anymore heralded him in the early '90s, wearing his t-shirts on MTV, passing his tapes, giving him opening slots on their bills? Interesting history, to be sure, but probably not.

If one were to maintain either to be the case, it might be easy to say that his success is undeserved or came about for the wrong reasons. But really, far be it from any of us to make such an assertion. If music speaks to someone, whether it's image-based, sex-based, talent-based, weirdness-based, so be it. And Johnston's music itself does speak to us, a lot of us. And I don't think it's only because he's not of the same ilk we typically see onstage. I don't think it's because we've seen his documentary, we know his history. And it's not because he makes Gibby Haynes smile.

Gibby Haynes.jpg
Courtesy of myspace.com/losbuttholesurfers

Daniel Johnston, devil be damned, writes some damned good music. His voice is a little warbly, his skills on the guitar not impressive, but damn it. His music has an earnestness and sincerity, a clarity and truth that often gets lost in translation as many songwriters get bogged down obsessing over the overuse of metaphor and the easy stumble down the path to cliché. And given that he often sings about love, this quality is refreshing and more importantly, touching.

At Daniel Johnston's August 13 show at First Avenue, many in attendance were likely as curious to see him with local backing band Knife World (including the keyboardist from much-touted new band Moonstone) as they were to see the legend himself. After beginning his set solo, then with the acoustic accompaniment of a friend, Johnston introduced his new friends ("Knife Fork" I believe he called them), and they proved to be while at first understandably reticent, a solid and appropriate fit.

Throughout the night Johnston treated the audience to a number of his better-known songs including "Walking the Cow," "Love Wheel," "Speedy Motorcycle," "Casper the Friendly Ghost," the beautiful "Grievances," and in a single-song encore, "True Love Will Find You in the End," while also paying homage to his favorite band with a couple intense Beatles covers, "I'm So Tired" and "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," plus a Lennon solo cover.

Courtesy of myspace.com/dannyjohnston

I don't know what exactly made Johnston so popular with the Steve Shelleys and the Jad Fairs and the Cobaines and the Hayneses of the music world over a decade ago but it was clear what endeared him to an attentive audience at First Avenue: His honesty.

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