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Daniel Johnston w/ Jeffrey Lewis – The Troxy, London 02/04/10

08 April 2010, 17:04 | Written by Paul Bridgewater

"I had a dream last night", recounts Daniel Johnson, with absolute clarity, a few minutes into his performance. "A man was sentenced to death for trying to kill himself. And that man was me".

As on-stage bon mots go, it’s assuredly more profound and disturbing than a standard “Hello London!” could ever be and yet it quite perfectly sums up the darkness and conflict that lie beneath the surface of Johnston’s art and music.

Tonight’s bill at East London’s magnificent art-deco ballroom The Troxy finds Johnston coupled with Jeffrey Lewis, another luminary of what one might call ‘outsider’ music. While both musicians share dual disciplines (comics and music), Lewis has a softer edge – his music is that of narrative and poetry, not symbols and catharsis.

Following a baffling late addition to the bill – Belgium’s Tommigun; think Americana meets 90′s one hit wonders Stiltskin – Lewis shifts from sound check straight into the set proper. It’s an effortlessly cool performance – the boy has this shtick down to a tee through years of shows. With a set that draws largely from 2009′s Em Am I, we’re also treated to one of his infamous comic book narrative songs providing a potted history of Sitting Bull. It’s an educational joy – so much so that I’ve retained almost every detail of the story days later. He ends with a jovial rendition of fan favourite ‘Back When I Was Four’.

There’s fun to be had during Lewis’ set by studying how the surly Troxy security guards wince through his faux-hip hop ode to mosquitos, and then to watch them suffer through all of Daniel Johnston’s set. Johnston’s music ain’t for everyone and I can understand and empathise with the newcomer to his music, a brand of savant lo-fi rock that can be grating at the best of times.

That said, I would call myself a fan in his art and music – I’m touched by the songs, the symbolism and the performance. I’m actually seeing Johnston tonight for the first time and have been told that the good days and bad days he has can dramatically alter his performances. And while it’s slightly disturbing to track his OCD-style selection and arrangement of six identical bottles of water between songs, he performs incredibly well tonight. It’s much better than I’d hoped and although he’s never quite 100 percent there, he is lucid throughout.

Following a short solo set, Johnston is teamed up with The BEAM Orchestra, an eleven person strong concern who provide blustery brass, a flappy jazz drummer and a guy on keys who reminds me of Paul Schaffer from The David Letterman Show. It’s unclear whether this partnership is simply an inspired collaboration or some semblance of an on-stage crutch. For the most part it succeeds in being both, adding both assurance and lustre to Johnston’s sometimes stilted delivery.

There’s a wealth of material showcased from the seminal long player Hi, How Are You, including the sublime ‘Walking The Cow’. Prefacing ‘Love Enchanted’, he pays his respects to the late Mark Linkous, who produced the track’s parent album ‘Fear Yourself’.

I have no doubt that many are here having seen and responded to the outstanding 2007 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston – the most effective liner notes for Johnston’s music and art. Without the movie, or at least a skeletal understanding of Johnston’s life, it’s arguable that one’s tolerance for his performance might diminish rapidly. In Johnston’s songs there’s a symbolic and constant struggle close to the surface – good versus evil, the tarnished soul versus a distant pre-lapserian innocence. It’s sometimes difficult to be entertained, especially after grim announcements like “this songs is from our next record which will be called ‘The Death of Satan’…”

Is and Always Was, Johston’s last album from 20009 represents a leap forward in his songwriting – it’s a collection more playful and less unsure than most of his work. There’s a confidence and humour in the likes of ‘Mind Movies’ and ‘Fake Records of Rock n Roll’, both of which are augmented by the Beam collaboration tonight. The knockabout bluesyness of the latter track in particular sees Johnston break into a smile more than once.

The role of the audience in his performance is questionable, however. While we might be here as observers, listeners and appreciators – shouting out endless requests for Johnston to play ‘Casper’ – his engagement with us is limited. He shrinks up there on the stage, a large frame shrouded by water bottles, diet coke cans and a sheet music stand. “Give it more Daniel”, comes a stray comment from somewhere at the back of the auditorium – perhaps meant as encouragement but taken as criticism. “I’m trying”, counters Johnston, a touch saddened by the remark.

The closer tonight is a tender rendition of ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’, a song that encapsulates everything about Johnston’s thirty years of music making – the talent, potential and sadness – into two wrenching minutes of childish lullaby. It’s his most perfect and accomplished song to draw the curtain on a really special and unusual evening.

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