Daniel Johnston/Laura Marling/The Wave Pictures -The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh November 4, 2009
In many ways, Daniel Johnston might well be the living embodiment of what it means to be a cult figure. Lauded by the hip, and covered by many other artists, his reputation enhanced by time, he inspires devotion from many. I have been to many gigs at the Queen’s Hall since I moved to Edinburgh eight years ago, and the cult appreciation of him has swelled to the extent that the queue outside the Queen’s Hall was the biggest I have ever seen. His latest album Is And Always Was is a fine album, and if diehards moan that it’s not recorded on a $60 mono boombox, don’t let that detract from the enjoyment of it.
Opening the gig were the Wave Pictures. I’d not seen them before, and only heard a little of their work, but this three-piece band evoke early Hefner well (and indeed have backed former frontman Darren Hayman). Being third on the bill at a gig can be difficult as a support but they won the crowd over, no doubt by making it clear how pleased they were to be playing with Daniel Johnston later. ‘he’s absolutely on fire at the moment!’ they enthused, which pleased the excited crowd no end.
Laura Marling came on with just her acoustic guitar for her slot. Having seen many singer-songwriters do this as supports and struggled over noise, she proved that she can hold the audience in the palm of her hand. Though she didn’t appear with Johnston at the end, she won many people over, as much with her self-deprecating banter as her music. Despite the fact that she maintained – more than once – that she couldn’t make small-chat on stage, she does so, very well indeed.I have yet to hear debut album Alas I Cannot Swim, but I will add it to my ever-growing wish list.
When Daniel Johnston comes onstage, the air of excitement threatens to reach fever pitch from some members of the crowd. There’s a large number of teens and early twenties in the room, so many have clearly come to have their chance of witnessing him in the flesh. Whilst much has been made of Johnston’s health issues, he was indeed on fine form. He first accompanied himself with an electric ukelele. To those who are unfamiliar with his work, by his own admission he cannot sing particularly well, but there’s a real charm that is more than endearing, it is genuinely affecting.
Appearing first solo, then joined by a guitarist and then the Wave Pictures, he performed songs from his back catalogue that even if you didn’t know them (and there’s a thirty-strong album back catalogue) made you want to investigate further. I had never heard ‘Bloody Rainbow’ before, but I think I could love this as much as ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ or ‘The Beatles.’ Speaking of The Beatles, his love of them remains undiminished, and we get covers of both ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ and ‘Come Together,’ the latter with the Wave Pictures. With the former, it’s no longer the Beatles serenading Eleanor Bron, it’s Daniel Johnston serenading us, and it feels like a privilege.
Sure his work won’t win everyone over, and Is And Always Was is as likely as polished as he is likely to get. But it genuinely is the sincerity that’s likely to win people over. Sure Kurt cobain may have got more publicity for him by wearing that T-shirt, but on the evidence of this, Johnston’s doing just fine winning the people over himself.