Saturday, July 26, 2008

Daniel Johnston and Friends, Glasgow Old Fruitmarket, 23rd July

We arrived late, to the yelps of Scout Niblett reverberating around the large and bizarrely posh Fruitmarket, which used to be murky and cobbled, and is now comfortable and carpeted, with a new entrance more suited to operas than indie gigs. This didn’t feel quite right, but it emphasised how much Daniel’s fortunes have improved since the last time he played in Glasgow. It was unbelievable five years ago that the man whose songs seemed to lie behind so much of the city’s music could attract only a pub full of fans. Very enthusiastic fans, rooting for Daniel through his nerves and cheering his every song like he’d just won a marathon (or a boxing match), but still. Only a pub full. The film The Devil and Daniel Johnston would appear to have swelled his following by a factor of five or six, on this showing. He’s edging closer than anyone would have thought possible to being a one-man Beatles, because there’s no such thing as a casual Daniel fan: you either don’t get it at all, or you get fully fledged Danny-mania, and this large crowd was no less rapturous than the smaller one at the old Stereo.

The players in the band played short sets of their own before the main event. We missed most of Scout Niblett (and all of Jad Fair, dammit), but caught Norman Blake and Mark Linkous. Norman assured us that we had a great set ahead of us, and played ‘Everything Flows’, which is always nice. Linkous played slow and delicate, and you were just starting to think that maybe this is quite affecting when on walked Daniel, who stood at a mic to the left, arms shaking, and once the cheers had subsided he sang with Linkous on the second half of the song. ‘The widow was beautiful’ he sang over and over, knocking your heart out flat each time, and then ‘The widow was the most beautiful girl in town’. I’ve never seen anyone conjure up so much feeling so quickly: the guy has a remote control to your heartstrings, people. All you have to do is love him back.

Norman was right about the set. Last time Daniel played mostly new stuff with a couple of old classics (including a jazz version of ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’): his focus was on the last album, and on songs he hadn’t recorded yet. This was totally different: a carefully curated set, drawn largely from his early tapes, which are of course the best things in the world. The arrangements were tasteful but not too tasteful, and not over-crowded even with the three guitarists. Stage left was a light blue chord organ. Used to good effect on ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’, pattering drums livening up the insistent organ chords. Centre stage in front of the main kit was Jad, with a drum to bang and a mic to sing into, looking so much the tanned beach bum we didn’t recognise him (no glasses, see – it’s like trying to recognise Harpo Marx without the wig). Two songs in, Daniel asked, ‘What’s the song you all want to hear?’ before cranking up ‘Speeding Motorcycle’. Maybe someone had tipped him off that the song might be quite a good one to play in Glasgow, although his remark later on that ‘It’s great to be here in... Scotland’ made it sound as though he didn’t know where he was. Also early in the set was The Beatles’ ‘Rain’, which made the most perfect pop sense, just beautiful, shining bright. Daniel was almost apologetic playing ‘The Story of an Artist’, saying ‘This is a really old song,’ before telling us that he wrote it on his way to pick up some mail after one of his mother’s (perfectly understandable) rants about his laziness, and that the tune is based on some jingle he happened to hear from a TV advert whilst walking out of the door. That was beautiful too, and updated for his new success: he’s now ‘half a millionaire’, apparently.

The hits kept on coming: ‘Hey Joe’, for Christ’s sake. What did we ever do to deserve to hear Daniel Johnston singing ‘Hey Joe’? ‘There’s a heaven and there’s a star for you’. There is now. And ‘Go’! The single most touching celebratory love song in the world: ‘So I think that you should go / Go on ahead / Take her in your arms / And be wed’ – the one time in the whole Daniel catalogue that marriage isn’t something unbearable that only happens to undertakers. And though most of ‘Go’ had me welling up and welling over, the chorus struck an odd note; or rather, Scout Niblett struck several odd notes during the chorus, and it had me thinking about a Kristin Hersh gig eighteen months ago when she encored with ‘The Letter’, and the cello arrangement curbed it, held it back to the point where it was just another song. This was the obvious danger for Daniel’s tour: that the all star talent on display, modest and lovely though these particular stars may be, would overwhelm the songs’ emotional charge with proficient musicianship. To a point this actually is what happened. It wasn’t like watching Daniel do Hi, How Are You? live: it was far lighter, touching without being depressing. The songs I’ve mentioned were interspersed with newer and rockier ones: ‘Mountain Top’, ‘Rock This Town’, a great ‘Rock ’N’ Roll / EGA’, which also balanced out the feel of the set. And just as Daniel has always wanted to draw in a large audience, it also made sense for him to have a large backing band: the source of the songs may have been sad and personal, but that was twenty five years ago. Now they are for everyone, and the band helped to turn them into the spectacle they always deserved to be.

More of Chris’ photos.

3 comments:

horsemeatpie said...

I've had 'Go' and 'Rock This Town' playing on a more-or-less constant loop in my head since the show.

To begin with, this was lovely; but as time progresses, the amount of Daniel in the songs decreases: all I can hear, now, is Scout yelping insistently. And it's not good.

I've never really had an opinion on her, but I very definitely do now.

brogues said...

Great comments! I loved that show at Stereo but this week's was something altogether better. It was so great to see Daniel on such fine, confident form!

Chris said...

Found a recording. Phew! I'd been aching to hear this version of 'Rain' again.

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