Daniel Johnston

Austin Music Hall--SXSW

March 16, 2005

I first heard a Daniel Johnston song last year when Beck performed solo acoustic at the Coachella Music Festival. I was really taken with "True Love Will Find You in the End." I thought the lyrics were devastating in their blind hope. I also thought it was a great, new Beck song.

Once I found out "True Love" was a Daniel Johnston tune, I wondered who this Johnston guy was that Beck would devote a cover from a short set. Then, late last year I bought "Discovered Covered," a two disc set--one contained classic "lo-fi" Johnston recordings, and the other featured track-by-track covers from artists such as Clem Snide, Tom Waits, and Beck.

Daniel Johnston is the great discovered/undiscovered musician. He has been idolized by many since his first homemade tape was released in 1980, but he's a cult figure. Possibly because of his ongoing manic depression, he's become a man-turned-myth that appears sparingly. He's semi-retired.

The SXSW Music festival was graced with three performances by Johnston last week. The Austin occupant came out of hiding first at the Austin Music Hall, where he shared six of his 400 + songs.

He walked onstage to thunderous applause from a packed venue. The delicate man with a short lisp walked to the microphone with an acoustic guitar and started playing. I didn't recognize the songs, but his performance was as touching as lightning.

His voice cracked as he played his earnest, bittersweet, and naive songs of love and acute observation. He delivered anxious, broken staccato lyrics over repetitive music. His quirky songs didn't have the most sections, but because of his unique delivery, he got his emotion across better than most music. Johnston's primitive playing was endearing. The music was beautiful in its vulberability.

For the last song Johnston switched to piano and pounded on the keys as he delivered a sing-songy vocal that wasn't rhythmically related to the instrument's pace and accents.

Even if it was rough around the edges, Johnston doled out his difficult yet relentlessly heartwarming truth.


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