Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Wisdom Of Daniel Johnston

The title of this post is probably a touch misleading, but the remarkable songs of Daniel Johnston are the thread that links two utterly superb gigs from the last two weeks.

First up was Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, performing in his J Spaceman guise at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. It's a bit worrying when you have to describe a nine piece band as 'stripped down', but with just string quartet, keyboards and small gospel chorus as backing, this was a world away from the extravagant, grandiose sound of 'Let It Come Down', and equally far removed from the crass garage rock of the disappointing parts of the 'Amazing Grace' album. After a brush with life-threatening illness last year, there's every indication that this is a rejuvenated Pierce, ready to recapture some of the transcendent glory of Spiritualized's best work.

First, however, a quick word about the support act, Lupen Crook. Exactly how seriously do you have to take yourself to get up on one of London's major concert hall stages to perform this utter tosh? The first gripe is that he has a lovely twelve string acoustic guitar but simply proceeds to strum it aggressively and disrespectfully, ensuring that the overall sound is decidedly unmusical. Second gripe comes in the form of the lyrics. No doubt Crook is aiming for some Jonathan Swift-esque satirical bite here (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt, because if many of these songs were taken at face value they'd simply be offensive). He is outrageously savage ('You f*cking Jew, you won't get anything from me, I'm not paying'), and tediously whiny ('where are my f*cking keys/I haven't had sex in weeks' - poor lamb). There are no songs without some unnecessary expletive, and they all have pretty much nothing of value to impart. A large part of the audience seemed as uncomfortable as I was, not knowing whether to laugh or die with embarrassment. Utterly rubbish.

Lucky then that Pierce was on superb form. In this acoustic setting, he seemed more relaxed than usual, even addressing the audience with a couple of words of thanks. The less elaborate arrangements also allowed him to focus on some rarely performed Spiritualized songs. In 1998, at the Royal Albert Hall, my voice was forever captured for posterity at the end of Spiritualized's justly legendary gig, shouting for 'Cool Waves' with all the strength in my lungs. Eight years later, Pierce finally granted me my request, with a sensitive and affecting performance. We also get B Sides ('Going Down Slow') and some Spacemen 3 classics ('All Of My Tears', 'Amen', 'Walking with Jesus'). There's also plenty to indicate that 'Let It Come Down' is an album where the highlights outweight the lows, with fantastic versions of 'The Straight and The Narrow', 'Stop Your Crying' and 'Lord Can You Hear Me'. There's also a clever medley of 'Anything More' into 'Ladies and Gentlemen...' that has led me to completely reassess the former. Pierce also includes the Elvis section in the latter that had to be removed from the album version for legal reasons. It might even be time to revisit 'Amazing Grace', given how rich 'Lay It Down Slow', 'Hold On' and 'Lord Let It Rain On Me' sound.

The two or three new songs are not a retrenchment to the minimal, drone based atmospherics of early works, as I suspected they might be, but rather continue the trend towards lush, Bacharach-style melodies. They're not as lyrically clunky as some as the worst of the last two albums, so their success seems likely if Pierce doesn't over-egg the pudding with the production of the new album, due in early 2007. The real highlights came with three Daniel Johnston covers - the bizarre 'Devil Town', in which the singer casts himself as a vampire, the touching 'True Love Will Find You In The End' and the mysterious lament of 'Funeral Home'. There is wisdom in these unusally skeletal, emotionally simplistic songs, and I need to seek out some more of Johnston's work (although I suspect he may be a singer best approached through the more nuanced interpretations of others). The encore is a predictable but welcome rendition of 'Oh Happy Day'. The only downside is really that this gig reveals Pierce's limitations as a guitarist, as well as the harmonic simplicity of his back catalogue. Many of the songs remain locked in the same key (perhaps due to Pierce's limited vocal range) and the relentless chordal strumming limits the cumulative impact of this performance. Still, minimalism has always been Pierce's stock in trade - an extra lead guitarist, or allowing Doggen Foster to be more adventurous on the Fender Rhodes (still one of the loveliest sounding instruments in the world) would have added welcome texture.

This week, it was the turn of Neko Case and M Ward, in a joint-header at London's Koko venue. Luckily, the sound problems that marred The Pipettes and Hot Puppies gig there a few weeks back seem to have been dealt with, and this show was every bit as superb as it had promised to be. Without his backing band this time, Ward turned in a solo set full of twists and turns, with lovingly recreated selections from the 'Post War' album sitting next to some unfamiliar material, and the obligatory Daniel Johnston cover. I particularly relished the song about O'Brien and his guitar with twelve-year old strings, one of a handful of numbers that demonstrate Ward's warmth and humour as much as his distinctive feel for blues and the American folk tradition. He's a superb guitar player, and even manages to make effective use of loops and effects on this occasion. It helps that he's also an unconventional performer, bent in what looks like terribly uncomfortable posture and lurching unpredictably between two microphones. It's thrilling to watch.

Neko Case and her wonderful backing band are nothing short of a revelation. The gig has also reminded me that I've completely failed to mention anything about her 'Fox Confessor Brings The Flood' album here, despite the fact I first received a copy back in February! It's a superb work which sees Case refashioning a traditional country sound in her own distinctive way, whilst also crafting a collection of songs that are mysterious, oblique and thoroughly compelling. If anything, the sound is richer and fuller in a concert hall than it is on record, and that album's finest songs really come to life here. Case's voice is an instrument of some power and dexterity, and she's one of the few singers who can really revel in reverb, effortlessly elegant throughout. Her lyrics are filled with unusual allusions and a poetic sensibility, frequently veering off at unexpected tangents. Her forceful but measured delivery accentuates the distinctive nature of the material. The band play with genuine sensitivity and class, with some lovely banjo and pedal steel flourishes and a drummer with the resourcefulness to play quietly! Case is also in fine humour, worrying about her heels and bemoaning the fact that they missed Halloween here by a day, and doing impressions of lines from The Birds between songs. Highlights for me included a stormy 'Deep Red Bells', a faithfully rendered 'Star Witness', a rather touching take on Bob Dylan's 'Buckets Of Rain' (a song easily forgotten as it seems like the least significant song on 'Blood On The Tracks, but Case imbues it with new feeling), and an energising version of 'Hold On Hold On' to round off proceedings. For the encore, Ward joins the band for a rousing version of yet another Daniel Johnston song ('To Go Home'). Despite both sets being quite short (did the venue need to open the doors at 7pm and keep us waiting until 8.45?), the resounding feeling is one of enlightenment and satisfaction.

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