Sunday, September 20, 2009

Daniel Johnston

with Tiny Masters of Today, Ralston Bowles

August 15, 2009 at The Metro
Chicago, IL

It was muggy in Chicago, and Wrigleyville was a ghost town on a hot Saturday night as I made my way down Clark street and into the Metro. The initial opener Ralston Bowles was genial and a good mood setter, offering his mellow songs and imparting some warm and genuine praise for Daniel as he related a few of his own memories of Chicago.

I knew nothing of Tiny Masters of Today until they bumbled on stage, whereupon I quickly estimated the combined age of the three band members to be somewhere around 25 (with a combined weight of about 200 pounds.) As it turned out, I wasn't that far off. The band is a brother/sister duo (w/ non-relative drummer accompaniment,) ages 9 and 13. The sister,
younger of the two, alternated between wrestling with an electric bass (which threatened to topple her at any moment) and simply singing. I swear I caught a glint of her braces.

Having heard some of the band's recordings since (and also browsed their all-too-professional web page,) I can see why some might be tempted to enjoy music like this. But live, the band was listless, unenergetic and totally dull. Their vaguely rocking tunes are sadly emblematic of a certain newly resurgent genre of rock making it's home in Brooklyn, NY. Call it 'yawncore? The brother, older and taller, with stringy hair and Jag Stang guitar, appeared bored, and his guitar style was equally rough around the edges. Close your eyes before the vocal kicks in, and it's easily Kurt Cobain and Chad whats-his-name circa 'Bleach.' To be fair, perhaps the only way this type of bare-bones music can be considered acceptable is when it's coming from prepubescents. But alas, their custom screenprinted bass drum head could not save them. Anyone but an audience of Daniel Johnston fans would have torn them to shreds.

Finally they exited, and Daniel was next. The dull drone of Tiny Masters gave way to the bright strums of Daniel's tiny custom guitar. His stage hands had set out five or six cold water bottles on the small table next to his music stand, but he carried a cluster of cold Diet Coke cans dangling from a six-pack ring as he walked on stage. Daniel was visibly nervous, shakily adjusting his mic stand, and his arms trembled heavily as his enormous hands clumsily clamped down on the chords. I'm guessing he can't finger the accordion anymore, and there was none present on stage, nor any piano. Johnston managed his way through a few newer ones and a few older ones, clearly laboring a bit, until he invited a guitar player (whom he introduced as an old college friend) to
join him on stage. With Johnston now in charge of only vocals, he was visibly more relaxed, and so was I. Much as I completely admire Daniel's determination to give us our money's worth, it was a little nerve-wracking to watch him struggle. His voice is his primary instrument now, and it's as beautiful and haunting as it ever was.

The audience at the Metro seemed to be keenly aware of the apparent fragility of the performance, as well as genuinely entertained, and the room applauded wildly at the conclusion of every song. Though there were the requisite two or three tactless idiot non-fans screaming nonsense (a brief aside; where do these people come from?? Why are they at these shows? I will never forget the fratboys who stood in front of me screaming "CUBS IN FIIIIIIVE!!" at John Darnielle at a recent Mountain Goats show.) Daniel and his guitar companion led the crowd in a rousing singalong of the Beatles "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," before stepping off for a brief break, after which he returned with.... Oh no! The Tiny Masters??

And so it was; Daniel up front, seemingly oblivious to the weirdness of the conglomerate of musicians, the Tiny Masters and the acoustic guitar guy trading not-all-that-comfortable glances at eachother to make sure everybody was in step. The band was lousy, and they played over the vocal a bit. It was all a little amateurish; in short, the kind of gig Johnston would have been comfortable playing as a young man in Austin in '91. These days, with pot belly and puma sweats, tangles of silver-gray hair, and his illness long-since diagnosed and broadcast to the world, the heart-on-sleeve rawness of his youthful early recordings have a very tangible twinge of sadness about them. And the audience, acutely aware, applauded perhaps a bit over-emphatically in an attemot to compensate.

A few notable absentees from the set-list (Walking the Cow, Sorry Entertainer) would seem to hint that perhaps a bit of the old stuff is too much for Daniel these days. Or maybe he's just forgotten some. Either way, it's a bit of a strange scene, these tiny children on stage with a manchild who must seem to them like a long-lost crazy uncle, accompanists with no clue or interest in his genius and largely paying no regard. But, they played on.

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