Daniel Johnston - The Empire, Belfast
The Empire, Belfast
Wed 4th April 2012
Welcoming us into The Empire tonight, was the snarling dust bowl folk music of VerseChorusVerse. He's just one man, Tony Wright as his postman would know him, with three chords and a monolithic satchel of 'the truth'. The North Coast troubadour has come on leaps and bounds since his first peering above the live music precipice at the tail end of last year. The initial shakiness and second guessing has been ironed out and Tony now commands the stage and the audience with relative ease, whether it be the fist clenching earnest rally cry of 'Big Red Van' or the blissfully bleak 'Spiders'. He’s found his feet and seems likely to do a whole mess of stomping in the near future.
It's a strange conundrum attending a Daniel Johnston show, especially if it's your first. The troubled cult singer wouldn't be regarded as the most talented axe man of his generation, while his vocal styling is like that of a quaking Neil Young whistled through approximately three teeth. Together, this would create, a rather shambolic frightening affair, if it weren't for those songs. Ah, those songs, tracks of untarnished, unfiltered raw emotion sung with innocence and fear, tracks impossible not to fall in love with.
Johnston wastes no time taking to the stage, straight in, no audience foreplay, it's just him and his guitar. He immediately kicks in with 'Hi How Are You', an archetypal despairing nursery song from Johnston's repertoire, the guitar playing/timing is tuneless and ramshackle. Four tracks into his set the fear sets in, are we going to have to endure a further hour of this? Even the most patient of well wishers would have to take issue with what is on offer. On record, his genius is clearly displayed with barely palatable, idiosyncratic no fi recordings, however live it can create an unnerving, uncomfortable experience. That is, until you throw his live band into the fray.
On his tour, it is customary for Johnston to pick the creme-de-la-creme of local talent to act as his, once off, backing band for the night. Tonight he has perennial stalwarts of Northern Irish music Cashier No.9 to layer up the full band experience. Beginning with 'Fake Records of Rock and Roll', the night has clearly been notched up several gears. The backing track is now tight, cohesive and most importantly, listenable. Cashier have pretty much captured the studio versions of DJ’s songs bang on but have added an essence of shimmering glisten, typical of the Belfast six piece. Danny Todd's twelve string acoustic playing should be singled out for particular praise.
Johnston, now decommissioned from his guitar, is on top form, even the Cashier lads are having a good old grin. ‘Life in Vain’ has the audience hanging off each syllable from this world weary singers trip through, and dealing with, mental illness. Predictably the show ends with his biggest hit, ‘True Love Will Find You in the End’, and there is barely a stiff upper lip in the building at this point. If he calls into question our heart with ‘True Love’, he challenges our head with the vitriolic, accapella solo encore ‘Devil Town.’
Nay sayers may guffaw at this show as ‘nothing more than a perverse voyeurism into outsider art’, however anyone with a beating heart, a shard of empathy and a soul will tell these people they are missing the point. You have to be in it for the songs and not the sideshow, man! Depressingly I don’t think Daniel Johnston will ever find ‘True Love’ but for forty five minutes in Belfast a few hundred people did, for his songs and for that he should be very happy.