Daniel Johnston – Live

Town Hall, Manchester. 03/11/2009
By Chris Gilliver

I come as a complete newby to the eccentric world of Daniel Johnston so you’ll have to forgive me for coming to this show with the eyes of an uninformed fool. I’m going to treat you too like a similar fool, and as a result this review may come across as unwittingly condescending. I apologise in advance for this. 

As a Daniel Johnston virgin, a little bit of research highlights a few things very apparently very quickly. 

Firstly, I can forgive myself for not having heard of him, because he’s a cult figure with a rabid core following. 

Saying that, a quick look at his list of followers and you come up with an impressive list filled with some of music’s most well-respected names. In the ironically titled 2004 release The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered we find none other than Eels, Bright Eyes, Beck, Death Cab For Cutie, Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips, and another cult hero Tom Waites all covering his stuff. Impressive no?   

Secondly, like so many geniuses, he is a deeply disturbed man. Obsessions with the devil and a bipolar condition have catapulted Johnston in and out of mental institutes. This area of his personality comes across very clearly on his recorded material and in his live performance. When not hacking at his guitar Daniel’s hand shakes incessantly and twitches nervously. This has lead the earnest, eloquent and/or the brain dead contributors on amazon and youtube to debate about the level of his real or imagined genius, the basic argument being that people are more taken with Daniel Johnston the man (or the imagined character) than his music. They feel that his fans are blinded to the obvious flaws in the chaotic, fragile music by the charming yet troubled nature of his character (and then there’s the fact that Kurt Cobain once wore a t-shirt with his name on it). It’s a strong argument, logical indeed, BUT entirely incorrect.

This stuff IS as beautiful, enchanting and as honest as you could possibly hope for. It’s the antithesis of X Factor, and of the town hall’s arrogant Victorian, jingoistic surrounding. There’s no spit and polish here, no shine, no glamour, no glory, no talentless dickhead with some banshee warble acting like they’re the shit, just pure talent in its rawest, most untamed form. He can’t play the guitar that well, he comes in and out of songs at the wrong times, but by the time the encore comes about, and he’s leaving True Love Will Find You In The End before the song has even finished I am totally blown away by the simple beauty of his captivating music. 

Daniel Johnston may not be a genius in the traditional sense of the word, but he is a (very) rough diamond, a true talent, and a fascinating performer worthy of his disciples.

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