On occasion, Daniel Johnston has shed his cult status and entered the public spotlight: it happened when Kurt Cobain promoted him and again with the release of The Devil and Daniel Johnston. And as a recent compilation confirmed, his influence can be felt throughout modern music, including Tom Waits, Beck, and The Flaming Lips.
So it was a surreal experience to see Johnston close the Over The Top Festival this past Sunday. On one hand it made perfect sense for him to perform for an intimate crowd of devotees at the Mod Club, but on the other, it was difficult not feel that Johnston’s legacy precedes him and that seeing him perform live would not even be possible. It’s easy to imagine Johnston as the J.D. Salinger of songwriters, recording songs in his home that we might not ever hear.
It was this kind of anticipation that openers Bob Wiseman and Mayor McCa faced with each of their sets. Wiseman, formerly of Blue Rodeo and the Hidden Cameras, played a mix of songs and short films (some of which can be heard and seen on his MySpace page). Their playful tone was a good fit for Johnston’s own songs. Similarly, the eccentricity of Mayor McCa—the self-proclaimed “The Hardest Working Man In Showbusiness”—also won over the audience. His ability to play the keyboard, guitar, foot pedals, and harmonica, often all at once (see picture), no doubt won him new fans.
And then there was the man himself, Daniel Johnston. Arriving to the stage alone, he performed the new song, “Mean Girls Give Pleasure,” alone on acoustic guitar. Two songs later, Johnston was joined by an impromptu band that included Wiseman, and played a number of “hits” from the last 25 years, including “The Beatles,” “Casper The Friendly Ghost” and “Rock This Town”. (Check out his MySpace page to hear some of these.) The spontaneous nature of the band gave a the songs a ragged edge that didn’t take them too far from the original cassette recordings. And it was fun. Later, Johnston returned for a short encore of “Devil Town,” sung a cappella with the audience.
While Johnston was the stand-out performer of the festival, the evening’s mix of entertainment was a suitable finale to the Over The Top Festival. Here’s looking forward to next year’s line-up.