“We all love you,” said Daniel Johnston to a sold out crowd at New York’s Highline Ballroom. It was 9:55 PM and the crowd reacted with a warm and wild applause as Johnston launched into what would be a two-part hour-long set.
Taking on new life since the release of the 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the 47-year-old singer-songwriter is finally taking the place he deserves among the many prolific songwriters of his time. Johnston has long loomed in the shadows of fame, due in part to his long bout with mental illness, but has always managed to peak his head through the doorway thanks to the support of such esteemed fans as Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Kurt Cobain, Matt Groening and others. Now standing on his own (for the most part) Johnston is proving that his mix of lo-fi sound and direct lyrics is still fresh, exciting and uniquely his own after three decades.
Opening for Johnston was the Brooklyn-based indie-folk group Spanish Prisoners. Starting their set with a song that sounded like a hybrid of the Band and the Zombies (except with a singer that couldn’t keep a tune), Spanish Prisoners played an otherwise boring 40-minute set. Showing that they had some form of musical talent, the four-piece switched among a variety of instruments including electric and acoustic guitars, banjo, organ, upright bass, harmonica, glockenspiel and melodica. In the end, Spanish Prisoners sounded like a lame Bright Eyes with cliché, meaningless lyrics such as “I was a once a flower and you were a bee.” Their performance can best be summed up by the sound of the crowd talking being louder than the band itself.
After a short break, Daniel Johnston finally emerged. The now overweight and gray-haired Johnston wore a large, over-sized orange T-shirt and looked more like a guy you’d meet on the subway than influential songwriter. Regardless, Johnston began his set playing a few songs on guitar. Not much can be said for Johnston as a guitarist -- he plays sloppily, often hitting the pickups causing the guitar to sound like nails on a chalkboard. Thankfully, this only lasted four songs before he let his accompanist take over. At this point Johnston focused solely on singing, reading from sheet music on a stand in front of him and gripping the mic like it was his crutch on stage. “I had a dream where a guy was sentenced to death for attempting suicide…in the dream it was me,” shared Johnston with the crowd between songs, setting the tone for a deeply personal performance.
The best songs of the night came from the combination of Johnston and his accompanist. Performing classics such as “Speeding Motorcycle,” “Hey Joe” and a mesmerizing, slowed down version of “Living Life,” Johnston brought an intimate touch to all of his songs. The acoustic half of his set concluded with an incredible cover of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” After a 10-minute break, Johnston came back out, this time joined by Spanish Prisoners as his backing band. While not nearly as strong as the all-acoustic portion of the show, the full-band songs still worked due to the strength of Johnston’s songs. It often appeared that the band was making up parts on the fly and a lot of the intimacy that was in the air with the acoustic set was lost. Johnston ended his set by saying, “this is our last song…but we have an encore,” and then launched into a slowed down, jazzy version of the previously upbeat, organ based “Walking the Cow.”
Coming back out for an encore, Johnston announced, “We have a Christmas wish that true love will find you in the end.” This started his performance of the deeply touching “True Love Will Find You in the End,” capping off a performance from one of the most important songwriters of the past thirty years.
The gracious Johnston soaked in the attention and adoration from the crowd with humility and grace. I had never seen another musician be so sincere with everything they did. After a lifetime of dealing with bi-polar disorder, Johnston has been able to craft deeply personal, almost childlike songs that cut right through you and bring you right to that place in everyone’s mind where you feel trapped or confined -- where you doubt and obsess, but ultimately fall back on the one true constant: love. Daniel Johnston represents hope that there’s always something better; that tomorrow is another day.