Midway through Daniel Johnston’s set at the Crescent Ballroom, a fan in the crowd cheered “We all love you, Daniel!”
Johnston’s response was “I seriously doubt it.”
While it’s easy to take the comment as playful humor, Johnston’s tone was dead serious. Doubtlessly, fans at the show appreciated Daniel and his music; but for someone who has written countless songs on the subject of love full of desperation, loneliness, obsession and redemption, the word love signifies quite a lot.
Johnston has been recording and performing his naively brilliant pop songs, meditations on mental illness and unrequited love, for over three decades. Like most fans my age, I was drawn to Johnston’s music by the remarkable documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which chronicles his start making crude but genius home recordings and his shot at early 90s alt-rock fame cut short by his schizophrenia.
On Sunday, Johnston was joined by an all-star cast of Arizona musicians for a set of some of his best music.
His first set of solo acoustic numbers, a showcase of his ham-fisted but tenacious guitar-playing, ended abruptly after just two songs. But the real treat of the night was the set with a full band, as Johnston ran through some of his most beautiful songs with the support of a group of Arcade Fire proportions.
The backing band of locals provided stellar accompaniment. It was clear that all the musicians had a tremendous respect for Johnston’s songs, and hearing the band flesh out Daniel’s typically spare songs brought a new, robust dimension to the music. While the whole band was top-notch, special praise goes to Megyn Neff of Dry River Yacht Club for using her violin to weave new layers of melody into the songs, and Wil Hendricks of Boxhead Ensemble for his soulful piano performances.
Highlights of the setlist included the rocking “Speeding Motorcycle,” and “Story of an Artist,” a simple but heart-wrenching ballad with a nostalgic beauty that seems culled from some lost era.
The set was fairly short at only about 40 minutes. Some folks near me mentioned that they would have liked to hear “Devil Town”, one of Johnston’s more popular songs after a cover by Bright Eyes was used to promote the show “Friday Night Lights”, and I missed out on my personal favorite Johnston song, “Walking the Cow”.
But for Johnston’s first show in Phoenix in more than a decade, he gave the audience more than enough to love.
Photo by Brandon Kutzler/DD