Somerset House, London
20 July 2008
An Evening with Daniel Johnston
23 July 2008
Words: Chris Hynd
I'll couple these last two gigs I attended in a quick review, mainly as I can't get the following phrase out of my head, a phrase I heard last year from a friend of a friend that seems to utterly encapsulate these performers -
You don't want normal people writing songs...
There probably isn't anyone quite like Joanna Newsom on this earth. Beautiful. Quirky. Elfin. You can trot out the old cliches and trot them out until somehow they still don't feel old as there really is no-one else out there doing what Newsom does and the loyalty and reverence her fans have for what she does and, at times, the downright joy it is to be in her presence. In the special setting of the Somerset House courtyard in central London as the sun goes down on a sultry mid-summer evening, Newsom once more turned in a special performance.
Performing alone at her harp and piano and stripped of the accompaniments of previous tours, Newsom's set took in highlights from "The Milk Eyed Mender" and "Ys". "Emily" was lovely and wistful, "Peach Plum Pear" drastic and stirring and "Cosmia" meandering magically into the night. 3 new songs were also previewed on piano and it's the third of them that will be the one to watch, full of dramatic longing for home and things past and likely to bring a tears to even most the cynical of eyes. If we ever doubted her and how she was going to follow something as unique as "Ys" then I think we don't have to worry. More of this please.
And after a wonderful "Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie", it's all over. Amongst the wind, Somerset House's chiming clock bells and planes flying overhead, Joanna Newsom made herself heard and we listened rapt and attentive. And she deserves that attention, anyone not of this earth as she really deserves nothing less.
As does Daniel Johnston, a man equally as revered and loved by a community that loves to root for the underdog. You can see from tonight that he is equally as loved by his peers - not many performers could manage to get the likes of Norman Blake, Jad Fair, Scout Niblett, James McNew and Mark Linkous to be their backing band but that's a measure of the man and his standing. He too is not of this earth.
Before we get to Daniel, the components of his band each run through a short set of their songs - Jad Fair is spiky and mischievous, Norman Blake and James McNew play a glorious version of Teenage Fanclub's "Everything Flows" and Mark Linkous slowed it right down, Johnston joining him in a heartstopping "Most Beautiful Widow In Town". Johnston himself played a short set on guitar but we all knew that what was to follow was what we were here for.
It was for these songs that have grown up with us over the years, "Speeding Motorcycle", "Casper The Friendly Ghost", "Walking The Cow", "Hey Joe", Johnston looked happy to be up on that stage, a place you could never accuse him of being comfortable on in the past and his all-star band looked like they were having a ball. Indeed, a huge, riotous "Rock This Town" pretty much confirmed this to be the case, a moment no-one in attendance would forget in a hurry.
Encoring (with only Linkous in tow) with the much-anticipated "True Love Will Find Us In The End", there probably wasn't a dry eye in the house and just for good measure we all joined in with the acapella "Devil Town". It was an evening of fun, of celebration and of thanks to an individual who, as I noted above, inspires us all. "You don't want normal people writing songs?" No, we really don't.