Daniel Johnston’s rise to fame could be said to have begun after Everett True handed a T-shirt to Kurt Cobain in the mid-90s, exposing his name and face to mass adulation, and has snowballed since the cannily-titled The Devil and Daniel Johnston documentary of 2005.
Johnston’s story is one of unceasing creativity amidst a turbulent private life. A compulsive comic artist and songwriter, he suffers from bipolar, a psychological defect that sees moods swing from deep depression to heady euphoria, and, completely locked in the moment, has been known to exit live performances after a single song. It all makes for an extra, if sometimes dubious, fascination, and the Cardiff crowd has gathered at the old church in heated anticipation to see tonight’s story unfold.
The candles that burn high on the walls inside are maybe an effort to sooth the magic out of our special guest, but he takes to the stage nervously, avoiding eye contact and losing himself in the opening number. It’d be a clich to analyse Johnston purely in terms of mood, but as he settles down into the gig and discards a few cobwebs his songs start to speak with an absolutely intrepid kind of grace and childlike wonder, veering into the unlikely territory of rock’n’roll with worried smiles.
It’s thus a surprise when he’s escorted off stage after the third song, but it’s not long before hes back and trickling over to the piano to etch out numbers that float through the arena like tortured spectres, piqued by dark visions and remnants of hope. It’s balladry that infuses the head with the “essence of Johnston”, baroque looking monsters vying for attention with shapes or remnants hope.
The quiet rapport with the audience is now fantastic, and as Johnston swaps his regular guitarists for a menagerie of local musicians who pump the songs up to a retro rock crescendo, we get an extra sense of his their total charm. They ring out as quiet subversion of every pre-conception in the book, pulsing and shimmering with staccato poetry, wonder and honesty while Johnston plays the team game like a happy outsider, emerging from his myth into a more genuine picture of childlike mischief and complicity.
Maybe this kind of natural expressionism has been the sole property of the comic artist for too long, and to see it sprout wings in lines of music and melody first hand is fantastic. Towards the end a definite smile or two emerge from our hero like nervous rays of sunshine. Brittle and sublime, Johnston has once more grasped wonder from the hands of despair.