Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Two Extremes: Steely Dan and Daniel Johnston In Concert

It would be difficult to watch two more different gigs consecutively than Steely Dan at the Hammersmith Apollo and Daniel Johnston at The Union Chapel. The former came with predictable musical virtuosity, as well as tremendous clarity of sound and execution astounding in its precision and accuracy. The latter was raw and untutored, unashamedly vulnerable and brilliantly moving.

Steely Dan haven’t visited the UK in a while, and this time they brought an ensemble that Walter Becker has repeatedly described as the best group they’ve yet assembled. This is without doubt a bold claim, but with the dexterous, driving drumming of the tremendous Keith Carlock and a particularly intricate horn section, there’s plenty of evidence to support this.

Certainly this was a much better show than the Wembley Arena performance I caught a few years ago. The advance publicity had lead me to expect plenty of recent material, including Donald Fagen solo tracks and some premieres of new work from Becker’s forthcoming second solo album. In fact, there was none of this, the band instead offering a shrewdly selected set of material ‘delving back into the deep 70s’.

The presentation was tremendous, with the band arriving onstage to open with a deeply swinging jazz groove to usher Becker and Fagen to the stage. Fagen played melodica for the first few tracks, which was a nice touch, and a refreshing change from his usual key-tar. ‘Time Out Of Mind’ made for a neat opener, metronomically groovy but with one of their most infectious melodies.

They only play two tracks from the past decade – an engaging, clattering ‘Two Against Nature’ and a tightly controlled rendition of ‘Godwhacker’. Much of the rest of the set focused on their golden period of transition (from 1974’s Katy Lied through to 1977’s Aja) – when they began to move from the fixed line-up and freewheeling multi-genre spirit of the early albums towards a more perfectionist adherence to strict time and jazz charts. In recent years, this perfectionism has proved stifling – with both studio and live bands forced to play rigidly composed lines with little free reign. Mercifully, this ethos has been at least partially abandoned for this tour. Becker and Fagen employed Musical Director and the horn charts particularly were meticulously arranged but they also left plenty of space for dynamic soloing and the horn players trade lines as if their lives depended on it (in fact, they probably did – Becker and Fagen are notoriously tricky taskmasters).

The show was testament to the duo’s longstanding writing talents, both as musical arrangers and as storytellers, with their surreal, hyper-literate tales of geeks, hipsters, drug dealers and outsiders. They also delivered plenty of laconic, dry humour too. Becker brings the volume right down during ‘Hey Nineteen’ to address the audience (‘it’s a lovely midsummer evening, and the last place you really want to be is at a Steely Dan show – you’d rather be on the banks of the river, with a beautiful lady…’). When Becker introduces the band towards the show’s conclusion, he introduces his partner in crime as ‘composer, pianist, songwriter, visionary and raconteur’. He may well be all these things but he still has the worst posture at an electric piano that I’ve ever seen.

Highlights included a stunning recreation of ‘Aja’, complete with Keith Carlock’s thrilling and visceral take on the infamous Steve Gadd drum solo. It’s also hard to overstate the audience’s delight when the band encored with ‘FM’, a genuinely surprising populist gesture. It sounded superbly slinky. ‘Chain Lightning’ is rendered as a particularly dirty blues, whilst ‘Bad Sneakers’ and ‘Kid Charlemagne’ made for pleasing curveball selections. The show also benefited greatly from variety, with Becker taking the lead vocal on ‘Haitian Divorce’ (with ample irony) and one of the backing vocalists taking lead vocal duties on a richly soulful, gospel-tinged version of ‘Dirty Work’ (one of the few forays into the earlier catalogue, there was no ‘Do It Again’, ‘Bodhisattva’ or ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ this time round). The closing ‘My Old School’ was particularly satisfying. The man sitting next to me simply could not resist the temptation to play air drums.

Daniel Johnston, by complete contrast, is not a musician’s musician. His vocal pitching is wavering and uncertain, his guitar and piano playing both lack any recognisable sign of technique or training, and his sense of time is so wayward as to be non-existent. His songs deploy only very limited harmony, often written in the same key and using the same three or four chords.

It’s not difficult to explain his extraordinary appeal though. His songs are among the most simple, direct and breathtakingly honest testaments in the modern pop landscape. They are frequently heartbreaking, and clearly a form of solace for the extreme emotional and mental anguish he has suffered throughout his life. He is endearingly childlike, but this also imbues him with a pithy wisdom completely absent from more self-conscious and verbose singer-songwriters. Sometimes watching him feels intensely voyeuristic – is it right to enjoy these manifestations of one man’s personal torment?

On the evidence of this outstanding show, the answer to that question is definitely a firm yes. What really shines through at the Union Chapel is Johnston’s underlying sense of hope and positivity. His songs address difficult issues, from unrequited love to his artistic and personal battles against depression (the quite brilliant ‘Story of An Artist’). Yet there is also real warmth at the heart of his work, particularly evident in the tender piano ballad ‘Love Enchanted’ and the unashamedly sentimental ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’.

There is real musicality to this performance too though, mostly due to the carefully structured nature of the show. Johnston arrives onstage to mass applause, beginning with a handful of solo performances, before inviting special guests James Yorkston and Adem to accompany him on a fascinating range of instruments (Adem plays mandolin and harmonium, whilst Yorkston gets an extraordinarily rich sound from his acoustic guitar). Johnston does his best to throw his accompanists off track, but they do an admirable job in keeping him true. They deliver spirited versions of ‘Casper The Friendly Ghost’ and ‘Walking The Cow’, amongst other songs from throughout the Johnston catalogue.

There’s then a short break before Johnston returns with another guitarist, introduced as a friend from the ‘songs of pain’ era. There’s then another short set where Johnston is backed by a full band, a surprisingly successful venture into conventional musicality.

Johnston is characteristically nervous and self effacing throughout, but there’s also a real sense of conviction underneath it all. He shakes consistently and violently, so much so that John Kell and I wondered whether he now had a physically degenerative disease to add to his other problems, but apparently the shakes are side effects from taking lithium. He sustains his extraordinary gift for communication throughout the show and he remains a prime example of how untrained musicians can break free from academic, formal preconceptions of what constitutes great art. Music shouldn’t exist purely for musicians – it should speak to everyone. Johnston achieves this with quiet dignity and integrity. In baring his soul so unreservedly, he challenges us to look more closely at ourselves.

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