Daniel Johnston, Crescent Ballroom, 2/3/13
Melissa Fossum Daniel Johnston performing live at the Crescent Ballroom.
Daniel Johnston @ Crescent Ballroom | 2/3/13
An enthusiastic young man in the crowd shouts: "We all love you, Daniel!"
Daniel Johnston, the grizzled man onstage, backed by a selection of Phoenix all-star players from Jimmy Eat World, Reubens Accomplice, Dry River Yacht Club, Boxhead Ensemble, Limbeck, and Source Victoria, answers with a slur, albeit a certain one: "I seriously doubt it. I seriously doubt it."
The scene is at the heart of what makes the music of outsider songwriter Daniel Johnston compelling: We love him, for his words, his melodies, and his unique perspective, but there's an element of real pain in every song. For every childlike, beautiful hymn like "True Love Will Find You in the End," there's an "I Hate Myself"; for every bad guy-whooping Captain America he draws, there's a terrifying vision of Satan consuming souls.
The problem with artists like Johnston -- Half Japanese, Roky Erickson, or The Brian Jonestown Massacre, for instance -- is that it's sometimes easy to mistake the legend for the songs. The story of the 52-year-old schizophrenic songwriter was told in Jeff Feuerzeig's masterful 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but is it the same story you'll find subtly murmured throughout his discography? From the early '80s cassettes like Songs of Pain and Hi, How Are You to his major label one-off, Fun to his collaborations with the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse to last year's sci-fi space opera Space Ducks, there's a through-line of rejection that unites the work of Daniel Johnston. If it weren't for the whimsical touches and the occasional rays of hopeful sunshine that dot his songs, it would be almost unbearable to listen to.
His first two songs, alone at the mic with a small guitar and a music stand heavy with chord-change sheets and lyrics, were painful. Johnston seemed antsy and nervous, distinctly like he didn't want to be here. He finished "Poor You" to thunderous applause, despite the rough approach to his guitar, and it seemed to bolster his spirits some.
"I had this dream that this guy was sentenced to death for attempting to commit suicide," Johnston told the crowd with a sort of exasperated glee. "It was me! I was sitting in the back of the court screaming, 'No! No!'" He followed the nightmare story with "Mask," a song most recently recorded for 2012's Space Ducks soundtrack, which accompanies a Johnston-drawn comic book about, yeah, ducks in space, and features contributions from Johnston, The Fruit Bats, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Eleanor Friedberger. It's cute and it's funny, but like "Mask," it's also unrelentingly bleak: "I was feeling so sedated/now I'm left pretty dumb/and every bit retarded/now the fires that burn are more than what she started."
"We'll be back in a minute with the band," Johnston promised. Within a few moments, they took the stage, a cast of Arizona musicians assembled to back Johnston at this show and Saturday night's performance at Club Congress in Tucson. Patrick Carrie of Limbeck manned the pedal steel, Michael Krassner, the Chicago/Phoenix producer behind Boxhead Ensemble and Blues Oblique, took the bass and percussion, Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World played acoustic guitar, Megyn Neff of Dry River Yacht Club played violin, Aaron Wendt of Source Victoria played drums, and Wil Hendricks of Boxhead Ensemble played the pump organ (a staple Johnston sound) and keys. Later in the set, Jeff Bufano and Chris Corak of opening band Reubens Accomplice would join the band on stage.
Melissa Fossum Megyn Neff performing with Daniel Johnston at the Crescent Ballroom.
Johnston couldn't have been backed by a more sympathetic cast of players -- and he'd do very well to pair up with them again. The quiet, tender songs, like "You Hurt Me" and "The Story of an Artist," were approached with a feather-light touch, while "Mountain Top," from the Linkous-produced Fear Yourself, was a charging rocker, with Krassner and Adkins cranking the distortion. Neff and Carrie added delicate countrypolitan touches throughout, and Hendricks and Wendt seemed to be telepathically tied to Johnston, swiftly accommodating any change in tempo or lapsed measure by the songwriter.