Nov. 22, 2008
Good Folk Fest – Louisville, KY
What can you write after you’ve seen a legend?
You wouldn’t know very much about Daniel Johnston — underground icon, father of the lo-fi singer-songwriter movement, and outsider artist — by the way he shuffled onto the small stage recently at Louisville’s Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center. Decked out in a Daniel Johnston T-shirt, dark sweatpants and Converse, Johnston quietly set up a music stand with lyrics and fidgeted briefly with his acoustic guitar, bottle of Mountain Dew always nearby, unassuming in his last-minute preparation. The entourage that helped him cut through the thick crowd of camera-wielding fans, musicians, misfits and well-wishers consisted only of his sister.
The music and the art, then, are left to tell the story.
The set, as many might have anticipated, was short — four songs and less than 15 minutes, all told – but far, far, far from unfulfilling. Like Johnston’s ever-growing catalog, the solo acoustic offerings flashed moments of brilliance from the un- and under-stated: the way a chorus suggested a more elaborate pop-rock refrain, the way an awkwardly strummed guitar stood in for an orchestra, the way one voice spoke for many. (For Johnston completists, here’s the set list that’s been floating around the Internet: “Mean Girls Give Pleasure,” “There Is A Sense of Humor Way Beyond Friendship,” “Mask,” and “Freedom.”)
But there’s something indescribable about seeing Johnston perform live. While his records and the live performances you can catch on YouTube can transmit a kind of isolation and loneliness, he comes off as even more vulnerable and naked in person. His hands shake between songs, causing him to spill the aforementioned Mountain Dew. He nervously fumbles as he tries to tell a dark joke. (Johnston said he was sentenced to death in a dream for attempting suicide.) He keeps the on-stage patter to a minimum, instead choosing to speak through the drawings he sketches for fans before and after the live sets. To sit in an audience and take it in isn’t eavesdropping or idol worship; it’s something closer to voyeurism, the subject somehow unaware they’re being aesthetically picked apart even as they take part in the analysis.
There’s also a magic, a kind of unspoken, communal conversation built around seeing a performer whose audience knows all the words and the chord changes. The cameras flash, the smiles grow wider, the applause is never anything less than exuberant. Since Johnston’s touring schedule is far from hectic, you’re always somehow aware of the magnitude of what you’re seeing. I can’t say what it must have been like to catch a three-song Johnston set in Austin 20-odd years ago but, if his recent sojourn into Louisville is any indication, it must have been fascinating. This was.