Live Music + Gig Reviews

Daniel Johnston @ Union Chapel, London

2 November 2009

Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston

Long gone from the days as being merely a ‘cult’ icon for Daniel Johnston. He has established himself as a lo-fi treasure, thanks both to the 2006 documentary on his life and being name-dropped by everyone from Nirvana to Spiritualized. His sometime backing band The Wave Pictures open this event at the heaving Union Chapel. Opening with the excellent Now You Are Pregnant, it becomes clear that frontman David Tattersall’s voice isn’t 100% and that some strained notes don’t quite reach their expected heights.

But this a minor quibble as the set is still full of gems, including a guest saxophonist making full use of the venue’s facilities by standing aloft above the rest of the band for a solo and drummer Jonny Helm stepping up to the mic to perform a gorgeous ballad as well as Strange Fruit For David’s lyrics also manage to raise chuckles in the respectful pews.

Laura Marling follows almost immediately afterwards. While she’s clearly a talented lyricist and songsmith, the samey nature of her songs fall flat compared to what came before her. When she goes into darker territory (such as singing “My husband left me last night” in a tone reminiscent of a heartbroken Cat Power) it does make for more interesting listening, but this short set sports little of impact.

The man of the hour appears briefly afterwards. What’s noticeably different from past performances is that he’s a lot more relaxed and chatty with his audience. Sporting an oversized jumper and tracksuit bottoms, he storms through the likes of Hi How Are You, Hey Joe and an utterly beautiful Life In Vain. There’s a certain fragility when he performs alone that is genuinely electrifying to watch and the fact he doesn’t seem to know how wonderful he is makes it an even richer experience.

This intimacy, arguably, is diminished when he is joined by backing musicians (including The Wave Pictures returning to the stage), but his stage presence certainly isn’t. Seeing as he’s an avid The Beatles fan, we also get treated to three covers of his heroes’ songs with Come Together, Revolution and a particularly brilliant You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, in which he displays fully how much fun he’s having onstage, yelping “Guitar!” to cue in with a solo.

Daniel Johnston is obviously not in completely good health. He forgets The Wave Pictures’ names as well as making jokes about what country he’s in. But it’s deeply refreshing to see him on such good form and, by the closing True Love Will Find You In The End, the audience are on their feet and applauding a stunning display from one of music’s true originals.

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