Daniel Johnston | 02.20 | Boston

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Words by: Andrew Bruss | Images by: Chris Petersson

Daniel Johnston :: 02.20.08 :: The Roxy :: Boston, MA


Daniel Johnston :: 02.20.08
Daniel Johnston‘s performance in Boston served as a window into his soul, his illness and all that he’s gone through to be where he is today. Johnston’s lifelong battle with Autism and Bipolar disorder has repeatedly paralyzed the progress of his career, and more significantly, his ability to lead a healthy life. The gritty details of his illness, documented in the 2005 film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, won’t serve much good in a concert review, but to see him perform is to see the pain he’s been through and the challenges he has overcome.

From the minute he took the stage, Johnston seemed frail beyond his years. He performed the first chunk of his set with nothing more than a guitar in his hands and a music stand for his lyrics. As he strummed away, the effort it took for him to keep the emotional release of performing from interfering with his rhythm was very visible. His hands were constantly shaking, possibly due to the side effects of medication, but his signature choppy guitar playing and frog-in-your-throat singing sounded as good as they did on his recordings.

He dished out cult new folk classics like “Casper The Friendly Ghost,” “Walking The Cow” and “Speeding Motorcycle,” all of which toggle back and forth between pure nonsense and lyrics that masterfully embody the power of love, pain, and the human experience.

Throughout his career, the rejection of his romantic advances has been a constant theme and his show in Boston proved no exception. However, where in the past his affection was turned down, Boston graced him with an ever-adoring crowd who cheered him on and encouraged him to no end. In fact, the admiration bestowed upon Johnston played a significant role in the way the night unfolded. Well aware of Johnston’s struggles, the crowd seemed in awe of his ability to get back on the road and share his music with the world. There was even a general feeling of gratitude for his willingness to expose such a vulnerable side of himself to a room full of strangers. Nonetheless, through his obscure-yet-authentic stage banter, he spoke to us like a small group of friends, which made everyone in attendance feel as though they were a part of something very special.

Daniel Johnston :: 02.20.08
After a brief break, Johnston came back to the stage with a back-up group, consisting of guitar, drums and a bassist, that added a bit of structure to his tunes. Unfortunately the group drained the songs of the intimacy that makes Johnston’s lonesome style so unique. After his mini-set with the band, he encored with a sing-a-long of “Devil Town” before closing the night with a beautiful rendition of “True Love Will Find You In The End.”

Following the performance, JamBase met with Johnston backstage to get a feel for how he felt things went. Unlike many of the acts on the road today, Johnston’s backstage scene was calm and collected. His sweet, gentle affect could be felt from across the room as he offered folks sodas that the venue had provided him, and talked about his love for Queen, The Beatles and his favorite scene from Scorsese’s No Direction Home.

“Tonight’s show was really good. I had a really good time. I was thinking about Freddy Mercury a lot. I even did his stance,” he said, as he extended clenched, triumphant fists into the air.

His unique ability to twist language has always been evident, and it extended into the conversation. When asked what he would tell a stranger about his music, he paused and said, “Well, my music is strange, too, I guess.”

Daniel Johnston is one of the most underappreciated lyricists of our time, and as a performer, the emotion he emits on stage rivals that of legends like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. His illness has contributed to his music in a bizarre way, effectively making him a contemporary Syd Barrett. But unlike Barrett, Johnston has managed to save himself from personal demons. As a result, he continues to bring joy to his fans across the world. The music of Daniel Johnston is unlike anything else you’re likely to hear, and his performances are just as indescribable. Seeing Johnston pour his heart and soul onto the stage was a remarkable experience that truly gave Bostonians a concert experience that they’ll never forget.

JamBase | Massachusetts
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