By: Alex Wood | Photo: @mgnstr
Songwriter Daniel Johnston is currently embarking on his final tour, the 12-date trek including two shows at The Vic last week.
Amongst rock history’s most creative figures, Johnston naturally wouldn’t settle for simplicity, instead creating a star-studded tour where each city’s stop would be backed by a popular musician or band from the area.
Joined by the Preservation Hall All-Stars in New Orleans, The Districts and Modern Baseball in Philadelphia, and Built To Spill in Portland and Vancouver, Johnston’s choice for the shows at The Vic was naturally Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, a Chicago icon and longtime fan.
Billed as Daniel Johnston with Jeff Tweedy & Friends, the two sold-out shows had a mysterious appeal, with a screening of the beloved documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston replacing an opener.
This was obviously going to be a strange but special evening.
The audience sat in chairs, the majority of which were taken by the film’s beginning. The documentary, released in 2005, chronicled Johnston’s entire life, his story a vital part of understanding his artistry.
For those unfamiliar with his legendary back-story, as described in the documentary, it goes like this:
Johnston’s music gained popularity throughout the 80s, when he began self-distributing cassettes recorded on a cheap boombox while living with his parents or other family members. The songs were simplistic but creative, primarily featuring Johnston on a piano, chord organ or guitar.
By the mid-80s, he was well known in the Austin, Texas music scene, loved for the pure and childlike nature of his writing. However, as his popularity grew, so did his mental challenges, eventually being diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic-depression.
As major labels became interested in signing Johnston, multiple manic episodes occurred, including chasing an elderly woman out of a second-story window and crashing his father’s plane. Delusional and obsessed with avoiding Satan, Johnston would spend the following years of his life on medication in mental institutions.
During the early 90s, Kurt Cobain began wearing Johnston’s Hi, How Are You shirt regularly, leading to an increased popularity on a worldwide level. Though the massive body of work Johnston created in the 80s would remain highly influential, he was never able to find the success most fans expected for him, and would continue to live with his parents and tour sparingly, when able, for the remainder of his career.
Fast-forward to The Vic, and this poignant opportunity for Johnston’s cult-like fanbase to see him one last time, the audience wildly applauding the movie’s end, unsure of what was to follow.
Jeff Tweedy was predictably joined by his son, Spencer, on drums, as well as an electric guitarist and a keyboardist, both seemingly around the same age as Spencer. Darin Gray, best known for his work with Jim O’Rourke, sat in on bass. Compared to the minimal recordings Johnston was known for, this is a considerably large backing band.
Johnston sat throughout the entire show, reading the lyrics to each song from a stand, grasping the microphone with both hands and trembling considerably.
It was immediately apparent that this was truly the last tour.
And that Tweedy’s assistance was absolutely necessary here.
The band opened with “The Story Of An Artist,” a song that, in many ways, encapsulates Johnston’s aesthetic and legend.
“Listen up and I’ll tell a story about an artist growing old
Some would try for fame and glory / others aren’t so bold
Everyone in friends and family / saying, ‘hey, go get a job’
‘Why do you only do that only? / why are you so odd?’”
It was a moving introduction, the music led primarily by piano. Tweedy remained on an acoustic guitar, visually conducting the band through the new arrangement of each song. Johnston’s vocals had a gruffness that stood in stark contrast to his old recordings, but the earnest soul in his delivery remained the same.
“Like A Monkey In A Zoo” followed, a song originally featured on Johnston’s 1981 debut cassette, Songs Of Pain. The band slowed the track down, adding a Beatles-esque sound reminiscent of Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. It was a masterful arrangement, the lyrics again fitting perfectly into Johnston’s story.
Johnston gave an emotional vocal performance, clearly beginning to get more and more into the collaboration with Tweedy’s band.
Two of Johnston’s most well known songs followed, “Walking The Cow” and “Casper The Friendly Ghost,” each given the same full-band treatment. The Beatles comparison would remain in my head the rest of the show, though the arrangements never compromised the simplicity of the originals.
Though Johnston’s vocals sounded older, the band made him sound younger.
After “Casper,” Johnston asked if he could smoke on stage, soon borrowing a cigarette and lighter from audience members. Though the audience cheered as he lit up, it was obviously less rock ‘n roll than anxiety control for the singer.
But the set continued flawlessly, Tweedy respectfully leading each song to new heights, acting to Johnston’s songs as he did to Guthrie’s on the Mermaid Avenue sessions. Of course they aren’t the same as originally intended, but listeners can discover a new beauty in them through the new arrangements.
“Devil Town” became a strange sing-along, Tweedy motioning everyone to join Johnston’s acapella vocals. “Spirit World Rising” again focused on Johnston’s fascination with Satan, and featured a massive instrumental section that allowed the band to let loose in the middle.
The later end of the main set focused slightly more on the band, with guitar solos and instrumental breaks occasionally sounding akin to Being There. But make no mistake – this was still a show designed solely for Daniel Johnston fans.
A cover of The Beatles’ “So Tired” made a fitting appearance, both because of Johnston’s fascination with the band and Tweedy’s relentless ability to transform his songs into a White Album sound. (The band would cover “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” at the second show.)
The cover was followed by the lesser-known “Hard Times,” which was given a rockabilly treatment, country overtones and thumping, walking bass. The variety again recalled the 1968 Beatles classic.
“Love Not Dead” and “Speeding Motorcycle” kept the energy high, using the band to ensure that this was a full-fledged rock show. As Johnston shyly shuffled off stage, the audience rose for a standing ovation.
It was obvious that this had been a very special evening.
The encore was designed to set up Johnston as the rock star he never was, placing two “hits” in a row that even the slightest fan would know.
“Funeral Home” was again given the sing-along treatment, its dark lyrics an odd thing to hear a thousand people belting out, with Johnston inserting a strange spoken-word verse in the middle.
“True Love Will Find You In The End,” undoubtedly Johnston’s most well known song, finished the set emotionally. The song was fleshed out by the full band, and gave a bittersweet finish to the show that left tears welling up in my eyes.
This would be one of Johnston’s last shows, and he was rightfully treated as the rock star songwriter he had always been. A massive applause and second standing ovation followed, the house lights went up, and that was it.
Johnston and Tweedy offered a show that nobody in the audience would ever forget, and this, not surprisingly, fit perfectly with the songwriter’s legend.
Check out videos from the show and the full setlist below.
"True Love Will Find You In The End"
"I'm So Tired"
"You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" - [from 10/20]
1. The Story Of An Artist
2. Like A Monkey In A Zoo
3. Walking The Cow
4. Casper The Friendly Ghost
5. Crazy Love
6. Devil Town
7. Spirit World Rising
8. Girl Of My Dreams
9. Worrying Shoes
10. Cold Hard World
11. Honey I Sure Miss You
12. Hey Joe
13. So Tired (Beatles cover)
14. Hard Time
15. Love Not Dead
16. Speeding Motorcycle
17. Funeral Home
18. True Love Will Find You In The End