Rewind – Daniel Johnston @ Fitzgeralds 14 July 2012
$22 bucks is the kind of ticket price that makes me think twice but Daniel Johnton’s show in Houston on Saturday night was one where I couldn’t imagine anyone left the place thinking they didn’t get their $22 worth and then some. The hook that got me over that $22 was the ensemble that had been cast for this show. My understanding (please, correct me if I am wrong here) is that Joe Mathlete was assigned the task of playing Nick Fury and “assemble Earth’s mightiest superheroes” or in this case some of Houston’s mightiest musicians. In addition to himself, there was Cley Miller (Young Mammals, Wicked Poseur), Carlos Sanchez (Young Mammals), Mlee Marie (Hearts of Animals), Brett Taylor (sIngs), and Collin Hendrick (Giant Princess) and the result was likely the best band Johnston has ever played with and a show that people will remember for years.
When Johnston first took the stage for an acoustic set with Joe Mathlete, I was a little taken aback. Johnston approached shockingly overweight, hunch backed, and with an uncontrolled shaking of the microphone that was unnerving. The last time I saw Johnston was with his band The Nightmares at Rudyard’s and that was years ago. That was a slimmer Johnston and one whose body was yet to be ravaged by years of medication* so to see Johnston in his current state was, to me, very upsetting. When he first started shaking his microphone, I thought he was doing this to get a vibrato effect but it clearly was something more and I spoke with quite a few people who, like me, feared he would knock his teeth out with this uncontrollable tick. Despite this, one thing had not changed over the years and that was his voice which was still as beautiful as ever and that opening with Joe on acoustic had the same kind of lonely beauty one finds in performers with similarly quirky voices like Neil Young.
As the night moved forward though, those concerns about Johnston’s health seemed to disappear. Maybe I just got used to it but it felt that once the backing band arrived Johnston really began to enjoy himself. He even cracked a couple of jokes and seemed to be really responding to the love coming from the room. And why shouldn’t he, Johnston had the best group of people behind him and the players were more than up to the task and sounding like some crazy mutant Pixies on steroids. This was not your dad’s Daniel Johnston – this was Daniel Johnston playing rock star to a packed, cheering crowd (especially “Rock and Roll/EGA” which was likely the heaviest that song has ever been played). The set list was like a greatest hits of Johnston’s career and everything from “Greviances” to “Speedy Motorcycle” was met with people in the audience singing along which is something I’m sure a lot of readers wouldn’t expect but it was true. This wasn’t a freak show as those only familiar with Johnston as a curiosity might think. No, people really do love Johnston’s work and they love it enough to sing it with him; that’s what great art will do when it affects people.
Before we get to some pictures just a few brief notes on the opening bands I saw.
Tax The Wolf - A rousing set, hadn’t seen them as a trio until now but they sound better than ever.
Mikey and The Drags -first time seeing this post-McKenzies garage trio and they lived up to all the buzz I’d been hearing. Unfortunately, and this was my one beef with the evening, the organizers didn’t stagger the upstairs and downstairs so they were left to perform downstairs while Grandfather Child played upstairs. Not cool, these guys deserved better.
Grandfather Child - Without a snare, is a banjo really a banjo? Discuss. OK now, let’s get serious here, if anyone has any doubt about this band being at the top of the heap in Houston, this show should set that question to rest (like every other show I’ve seen from them). One minute the band dishes you some heartfelt soul and the next a rousing blues number and they do it all seamlessly and with a style all their own. I heard one dude in the front row calling them a seemingly endless stream of genres in describing the band to his friend and that’s about right. Who else can pull of a crazy psychedelic country number that hearkens to Sun Ra and have the audience go crazy but these guys?
Honestly, I have a lot of appreciation for the hard work done by the folks down at the Houston Press but the fact that Grandfather Child was not nominated in the Houston Press Music Awards just shows how utterly irrelevant those awards have become since they introduced open nominations. That’s really a shame because they used to be, to a degree, a real reflection of what was going on in Houston but now, while there are some good bands nominated, the open nominations thing has reduced the HPMAs to a joke. They should just nix all the categories and just call it what it really is by just giving out one award “best use of social networking by a band.” There I said it!
Sorry did I go off on a tangent? OK here are some pictures….