Thursday, November 05, 2009

Daniel Johnston, The Wave Pictures and Laura Marling, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 4th November

‘Are you going to call him a dick?’

‘Do I have to?’


‘But I’m not sure he is a dick.’
Excuses, excuses. He’s ill, many of the decisions about this concert will have been made for him. He wrote the best songs that ever were, he can do what he likes. He can push an old lady out of a window, crash his father’s plane. But if he tours with a set which is stone cold, then what was the point of it all? And still the fans go wild, still give him a standing ovation. Are they cheering the fact that a man with his mental health problems, so heavily medicated, can stand up and sing at all? Fuck that. Do you hear, Daniel? We don’t love you for the illness, but for the fight. Do you think that we can’t tell the difference?

The bus to Edinburgh had quite a few people on it going to the same gig. The people behind us and the people behind them, at least. It was tempting at first to turn around and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’, join in with the chat about how many songs he’d play (not which songs, curiously), and how best to make it back to the bus station in time if he finished late. The first time the louder of the pair sang ‘Speeding motorcycle’ and his companion chimed in ‘Won’t you change me?’ it was funny. But soon they were talking too loud and too much about local venues and doing sound for gigs and how everyone but them was too cliquey, and I disappeared gratefully into my iPod. They persisted with the ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ line – just that one line – eventually irritating S. into singing ‘Funeral Home’ back at them. A whole bus singing that would have been worth hearing.

The start was delayed. Arriving twenty minutes after the doors were supposed to open we found a long line of people outside the Queen’s Hall. Last time we were here we saw The Magnetic Fields. It was the week John Peel died and Marc Almond nearly did, and Claudia Gonson inaugurated the least respectful, most rushed minute’s silence I’ve ever sat through. The songs were great, but – way to alienate a British crowd. So, another excuse: a spooked venue.

How long can I put this off? Last year Daniel was so great. This year’s show followed the ‘& Friends’ format too, but the friends this time weren’t Jad Fair and Mark Linkous but The Wave Pictures and Laura Marling. The latter kinda hilarious in a New York 1960 coffee house folk style, two parts Joni Mitchell, one part Karen Dalton, but seriously undermined by a fake American accent, daft self-important lyrics and an off-the-shoulder pullover. Wish I could remember some of the lyrics. The first line of the first song on her website gives an idea of the sort of thing: ‘I woke up and he was screaming.’ Dynamite. The Wave Pictures, on first, were really enjoyable. If it had been their gig I would have come away impressed. Last year I loved their song ‘Strange Fruit for David’, specifically the lines: ‘A sculpture is a sculpture / Marmalade is marmalade / And a sculpture of marmalade is a sculpture / But it isn’t marmalade’, which are genius. And about marmalade, which is under-represented in indie rock and in songs generally. But.

They did not work at all well as a backing band for Daniel. Theirs is a dimly lit sound, bass heavy with ornate mouldings of guitar, designed to accommodate the wordy, literate sleaze of their lyrics. It should have occurred to someone that this was as likely to complement the damaged purity of Daniel’s voice as... I dunno, as The Magic Band would be likely to bring out the subtleties in a performance by a cathedral choir. ‘Silly Love’ was done as cod reggae, ‘Fish’ as cocktail jazz. Killed outright, both of them. ‘Rock ’n’ Roll / EGA’ was relatively un-messed around with, but there was none of the punch that last year’s band brought. To make matters worse, and as if to make a mockery of the earlier set’s sublime take on ‘Rain’, there were three Beatles songs: ‘Hey, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, ‘Come Together’ and ‘Revolution’. The latter as un-rock as ‘Rock ’n’ Roll / EGA’, and prefaced with the remark, ‘Vive la revolution’. ‘What does that mean?’ demanded Chris, getting more angry with each passing song.

There were a few great moments: after Daniel’s short solo spot and before the band set proper, an acoustic guitarist came on (I don’t know his name) to accompany ‘Life In Vain’ and ‘Hey Joe’. Played straight they were simple, overwhelming, everything Daniel can and should be. Next time, someone just give him a piano and leave the friends to the support slots. Bring the boxer out of retirement. Keep punching, Joe.

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