There was something in the air that night. A cool fall breeze blew golden leaves past the front steps of the Ukrainian Federation in Mile End. It was no ordinary singer songwriter that people were waiting to see, it was the legendary Daniel Johnston.
Johnston is an artist that one either knows plenty of, or nothing at all. It was clear with the excitement, and in some ways nervousness, felt in the room that the majority of the people at this show knew very well who he is, and the genius behind his work.
I had first heard of Johnston years ago when I came across one of his tapes. It wasn’t an original, but a copy, and in regards to Johnston’s simple approach to songwriting, music, and singing, to hear him on tape first is fitting.
He recorded most of his work by himself and you’ll find that his songs have not been re-done or re-mixed; so much of Johnston’s sound has to do with pure honesty.
For the first few songs, Daniel Johnston played a small acoustic guitar, selecting songs from a large binder. The audience was absolutely focused. To see that no one was concerned with who was around them, how they would stand, or how they might dance, was a refreshing change.
When Johnston was singing it was clear that all eyes and ears were on him.
How could they not be? Daniel Johnston is one of those rare performers who is completely committed to the act of performing. This guy isn’t worried about the latest trends or what will sell the most tickets.
In some ways, Johnston has a history of reducing his chances at mega-fame. Perhaps this has to do with his fragile mental state. He is after all bipolar and was committed to a mental facility in the early 90s. Certainly, Johnston has always done what he wants.
The opening band, The Capital Years, was also, for the second half of Johnston’s set, his back up band. One major problem was that the band’s instruments drowning out Johnston’s voice. At one point this led to people yelling at the sound guy.
Besides playing his own songs, Johnston dedicated a good portion of the show to Beatles covers – his favourite band. He encouraged the audience to sing along with him, word by word, verse by verse, chorus by chorus.
Because of Daniel Johnston’s history with mental illness, there was a worry in the back of my mind that, at this point in his career, his performance would have been received as spectacle, rather than art.
However this worry was quickly dissolved when I realized how attentive the crowd was, not to mention his charismatic stage presence.
The encore was a highlight of the show when Johnston played my favourite tune, “True Love will find you in the End.” I am not only speaking for myself when I say that by the end of the short song, there were tears in my eyes.
How else can one react when, in these days of over produced mediocre music surrounding us, we are faced with the simple, glorious sound of a person expressing their honest feelings. A true artist.
“This is a promise with a catch
Only if you’re looking will it find you
“Cause true love is searching too
But how can it recognize you
Unless you step out into the light?
But don’t give up until
True love finds you in the end.”
– “True Love Will Find You in the End,” Daniel Johnston