Review: ‘Hi, How Are You?’ is powerful

Jeffrey Petrone

Staff Writer

 

He has been covered by people like Beck, TV On The Radio, and even Tom Waits. Yet, Daniel Johnston remains an underground figure in music.

The 56-year-old is currently on what has been called his final tour. On Oct. 7, he performed at Town Hall in New York City. Although the concert lasted only 45 minutes, it was a truly powerful evening.

The “Hi, How Are You?” tour started on a rocky note in New Orleans. Johnston left the stage after two songs and came back to play four more. His lyric sheet fell over and Johnston left the stage in a panic. However, his performances have only gotten better, leading to his stunning Town Hall show.

After a screening of the excellent 2005 documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” Johnston’s brother, Dick, placed his lyric sheet on a music stand. Johnston then entered the stage and his band began to play his classic, “Silly Love.”

The ensuing 13 songs were a best-of-Johnston performance, with “Walking The Cow,” “Life In Vain” and perhaps his most well-known song, “True Love Will Find You In The End.”

What has made each show of the tour so special is that Johnston is always backed by a different band. In New Orleans, he was backed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band All Stars; in Washington, D.C., by members of Fugazi; and in Chicago, by Jeff Tweedy.

The show on Oct. 7 was backed by members of Beirut, Cibo Mayor and Joan As Police Woman. The moving violin of Joan Wasser on tracks like “Life In Vain” and “Story Of An Artist” added an even deeper emotional depth to the already moving songs.

Heightening this was the quivering voice of Johnston. He held onto his microphone, but his shaking hands could not be stopped.

Sometimes he sang into the mix, and other times his voice sank low, unheard by the masses there to see him.

Regardless, the audience seemed glad to see Johnston playing live. In the months leading up to the tour, Johnston had been taken in by law enforcement to have his medications altered. On top of that, his father, with whom he was still living, died in September.

After his Town Hall appearance, Johnston has had repeated issues with standing on stage, which resulted in him playing his two Chicago shows seated.

Bleakness and despair have shined through all of Johnston’s performances for as long as he has been playing live. Songs like “Funeral Home” and “Running Water” invite those feelings. Sometimes, his lyrics are cryptic or delusional ravings, but they always break through bone in delivering their message. “Got me a coffin shiny and black, I’m going to the funeral and I’m never coming back,” will dig into the mind and soul of the listener, and never leave.

The performance was fairly short, but it felt like the single most important concert I have ever been to.

Johnston is not like Black Sabbath, announcing a retirement tour years before actually following through with it. This could very well be his last New York City show, or perhaps his last tour. Only the future holds the answer to that question and the answer might not be pretty.

Johnston is someone everyone should have a chance to see; if not see, then hear. His story continues to be as inspiring as it is heartbreaking.

On the surface, all his work his unworthy of anyone’s time. He does not “know” how to play guitar and he is not a talented singer, but he has a gifted soul.

For years, Johnston believed himself to be personally damned by the devil, and from his point of view it is almost understandable. As his success has grown, his shortcomings have exploded. He is everything a reasonable person would tell you to never be; he is an artist.

Johnston still has shows coming up throughout the early weeks of November.

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