Amelia’s Magazine | Daniel Johnston @ The Union Chapel

Kuri Yashiro 2007

The Union Chapel in Islington was a perfect venue for Daniel Johnston to display his talents to his adoring London fan base. The church setting and pew seating inspired a hushed reverence and allowed almost everyone an unrestricted view of the stage. After two excellent support acts (Jake Bellows and James Yorkston), Daniel Johnston sloped into view and picked up a guitar. Overweight, grey haired and wearing tracksuit bottoms and a sweatshirt he looked exactly like a man who has spent a large proportion of his adult life being cared for.

A transformation happens as soon as he starts to play and sing. It is the contrast between what Daniel Johnston is and what Daniel Johnston does that has provided him with his unique position in modern music culture. His voice has range and emotional intensity, but it is his ability with lyrics and melodies that makes Daniel Johnston into a modern music icon.

His lyrics, which seem to have by-passed most commonly understood notions of lyric writing, could be considered childish or naive at times. Yet somehow they manage to transmit an intensity of feeling or a truthfulness of expression that renders such considerations irrelevant. Playing guitar and piano and often almost unable to control his physical infirmities, he played a long and varied set that mixed his most popular songs with recent work.

Sometimes he performed solo and at others he was accompanied by a whole band or by a varied combination of guitarists and organists. In each of these permutations he produced a performance that convincingly displayed his song writing talents and his unique persona. My favourite combination was the young six-piece band he played with towards the end of this set.

Their slightly ramshackle delivery perfectly matched the material and it was a shame they played only a handful of songs. Between songs and personnel changes he showed the audience that on this particular day Daniel Johnston was happy and well telling jokes and providing pseudonyms for his band members.

I can only guess at the level of support Daniel Johnston had in London prior to the release of the 2005 film “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”, but his audience at the Union Chapel twice gave him a standing ovation, once as he left the stage and immediately after his simple one minute encore.

I really enjoyed this gig and after listening to his last two albums I think that he has a valid present as an artist as well as a rich past. However, I was left with some strange impressions of the audience. Throughout the gig I had a niggling feeling that the varying quality of song writing was being ignored by the audience, though this I suspect was suspect partly because of the partisan nature of the crowd and partly because of a misguided notion that he is somehow not comparable to more conventional musicians or deserves some kind of special consideration. Daniel Johnston’s ‘outsider’ song writing by any conventional comparisons is often excellent, but just like most of his more mainstream peers (a lot of whom are also his fans) he also writes songs that are simply average.

Don’t miss Daniel Johnston when he comes to London again. He may not be the normal mix of mad bad and dangerous to know that you expect from a rock musician, but the unique combination he possesses is equally compelling. James Yorkston was also magical in his support slot and I would also highly recommend seeking out his next performance.

Categories ,Daniel Johnston, ,Gig, ,Live, ,London, ,The Union Chapel

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