“Merry Christmas” from Daniel Johnston

Illustration of Daniel Johnston by Little Tiny Fish.

Daniel Johnston played a mesmerizing set and wished everybody a “Merry Christmas” at the Turner Hall Ballroom last night. It’s the middle of February, obviously, but as he pointed out, “With all this snow, you’d think it was Christmas.” That’s the kind of whimsical naïveté that points the spotlight on Johnston’s song writing abilities. John Sieger & the Subcontinentals and The Scarring Party opened the show.

Every time I go to see a show at the Turner Hall Ballroom, something is different, whether it’s the entrance point, the start time, the floor layout or even improvements on the acoustics. Unlike the last couple of rock shows I’ve attended, this time we were greeted with a floor full of tables with candles, each with two chairs pointed towards the stage. It was a kind of sweet ambiance, as Johnston’s music is less about the rocking out, and more about life reflection.

When Daniel Johnston took the stage his hands were shaking, his fists were clenched and his eyes were closed. I first took this to be nervousness, but as the set went on, I could see that Johnston seemed barely aware that there was even an audience in the room. Even when the crowd was heckling / requesting, it fell on deaf ears. Usually you can see the recognition in a performer’s eyes, when they hear a shout out and choose to ignore it, but all I could see was an intensity in Johnston’s eyes, deep below his furrowed, bushy eyebrows. To him, it seemed, this was no time to be thinking about anything else, except this song. The result of this focus? Well, the first song wasn’t particularly “good.” It lacked pacing, Johnston’s voice never seemed to find a key, and the song may have been under-practiced. But none of that really mattered, because the intention was there, and the audience sensed that. At the song’s closing, the crowd broke the delicate atmosphere with whistling and clapping.

At first Johnston was the sole performer on stage: a large, round man standing in front of the skinny microphone stand, clutching a back-packer guitar — a sort of mini, snubbed guitar that truncates the reverberation of the strings. (Think ukelele, but with more power.) It was alone, under the spotlight, that all of the ironies that comprised this musician were made obvious: He was a powerful character, yet entirely timid. His performances were clumsy, but his music was beautiful. It seemed he didn’t want or recognize his fame, yet a full house was honored to watch him perform. He’s been compared to blues man Robert Johnson and country star Hank Williams, yet he is simply Daniel Johnston.

His instrumental performance was varied. On a few songs, Johnston’s fat fingers strummed his guitar, and later he ticked away on a piano (unfortunately for just one song) with an overwhelmingly bright sound. Most often, though, he was without an instrument, clenching his fists, or clutching the mic stand, backed by other musicians, including the openers John Sieger and the Subcontinentals. All through the performance, Johnston’s quality see-sawed between an endearingly child-like first recital and an impressively honest artist, who unabashedly announced his intentions, beliefs and fears, deep from within, without holding back. No matter what the quality of his performance, you knew when he meant what he said. When he sang the words “This is life, and everything’s alright,” I genuinely believed him.

Special guest John Sieger played the kind of tambourine–happy, Summerfest blues that is best enjoyed with a plastic cup in each hand. Opening band The Scarring Party played what they call “End–Timey” music, a combination of apocalypse–rooting, haunted jazz and folk with a hint of punk, held together by a diverse instrument line–up including banjo, accordion, tuba and typewriter. The new mellophone machine gives them a spookier sound, akin to Ramero–era horror films.