Daniel Johnston/Marty Finkel/Mark Waldoch; August 12, 2009; The Annex
I felt very fortunate to see Daniel Johnston at a free day party at South by Southwest earlier this year, but figured it may be the only chance I would ever get to see the indie songwriter. Well, cool, I was wrong. The obscure musician had his profile raised significantly by the successful 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston which detailed his honest and quirky songwriting as well as his battle with mental illness. I’ll admit that nine times out of ten I listen to the covers disc over the disc of warbly originals in the Discovered Uncovered: Late Great Daniel Johnston set, but I think that just proves the quality of the songs. Besides, the covers are done by some of my favorite musicians, like Conor Oberst, the eels, and Tom Waits.
The truth is, Johnston can be hard to listen to, and even harder to watch. Either nerves, or drugs meant to control the nerves, result in a severe shake that had me worried he was going to bust his own lip open with the microphone. The only time he didn’t have both hands clenched on the microphone was at the beginning of the set when he played couple songs (like appropriate opener “Hi, How Are You?”) on guitar. It was a very different looking guitar, with an oddly shaped body and a fickle tuning that seemed to drag on and on between bands. He’s not a good guitar player, there were countless mistakes in his playing but it was still endearing. Next, he was joined by the same guy that I had seen with him in Austin who played several songs on acoustic guitar while Johnston sang, and these may have been some of the prettiest of the set. While nothing was as affecting as “Living Life” had been in Austin, “True Love Will Find You in the End” was close.
There was a short break before the band took over. I had assumed that he would have someone like the Hymns who had backed him in Austin touring with him, instead openers Mark Waldoch and Marty Finkel and his band filled the opening. I’m not sure how Mark and Marty got the job, but I am assuming this was the format for the entire tour. I can’t imagine they had much time to practice together before the show, but I have to say it went amazingly well. There weren’t any train wrecks as far as I could tell, despite the large potential for some. With Marty on keyboards and Mark on guitar, they chugged through classics like “Caspar the Friendly Ghost,” “Grievances,” and a truly rocking “Speeding Motorcycle,” all the time the slightly confused Johnston seemed to be enjoying himself.
“What state are we in?” Johnston questioned the crowd, “Does it start with an ‘N’?” When we replied Wisconsin, he seemed a little befuddled, but not exactly surprised, “Oh, I thought we were in Nebraska.” The surprisingly young crowd took the slight well; it seemed nothing could shake their admiration. As expected the crowd was enthusiastic and devoted, but wouldn’t have made a dent in the much larger Barrymore Theater where the show had been originally booked. If Marty was disappointed that he had missed out on his first opportunity to play the large theater, I couldn’t tell from his opening set which was his usual likeable mix of aw shucks charm and catchy pop songs. Two characteristics that make every set he plays a treat.