Live Review: Daniel Johnston and the Rayguns; Nipper/Bright Eyes Grammy…

Category: Blog — @ 6:42 pm February 11, 2008

First a bit of news: I found out while watching The Grammy’s last night that Zach Nipper won for Best Recording Packaging for his work on Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga album. Right before one of the commercial breaks the network tossed the information on the bottom of the screen, along with a picture of Nipper — decked out in a tux — accepting the award at a ceremony held earlier in the day. If you’re wondering what Nipper looks like, he’s the handsome stud on the cover of Cursive’s Domestica album. The Grammy is the first for a Saddle Creek Records project, but hopefully not the last. It’s just a matter of time before the academy’s voters recognize Oberst for his songwriting chops. Niz has coverage in the OWH here. Says Nipper in the article: “It definitely makes me feel like a rock star.” Indeed.

Now to Daniel Johnston Saturday night at The Slowdown. The show wasn’t sold out when I got there, but it had to be darn close judging by the massive crowd in the venue. I arrived after 10:30, just in time to see Flowers Forever. The band has one of the best drummers in town in Craig D., as well as the genius that is Chris Senseney on guitar. Then there’s frontman/scenester diva Dereck Pressnall, who is single-handedly trying to reincarnate the soul of Elvis Presley within his Vincent Gallo-esque frame. There’s something almost subversive about Pressnall’s flamboyant, gyrating performance style, something that runs obscenely counter to the stand-and-play tradition of indie rock. Pressnall lets it all hang out, much to the dismay of the people around me who took his panache as rock star posing. Whether you’re revolted or not, you have to admit the performance is interesting, unlike the music. I’m working on a review of the Flowers Forever debut that’ll likely be online this Wednesday or Thursday as part of a package of reviews that make up this week’s column. Pressnall’s live performance embodies that CD, adding a little more life to the music than what’s heard on the disc. It all comes down to whether or not you buy Pressnall’s “Change better come / We’re not fucking around no more” millennial outreach — an approach whose sincerity works when it comes from Tilly. When it comes from Flowers Forever, it sounds less like a rallying cry than a threat from someone that no one could possibly take seriously.

Flowers Forever was an odd choice for this bill. Their music is almost diametrically incongruous with Daniel Johnston’s. I assume Pressnall is a big fan (or else he and Creek just wanted to glom onto what they knew would be a big crowd). There was no rock star posing from Johnston, who came out and spent the first five minutes of the set struggling with sound equipment. First his microphone didn’t work. When they figured that out, his guitar quit working. If you came wondering if Johnston would implode on stage (as a few of the people I spoke to outside admitted), here was the perfect opportunity. Instead, Johnston just looked lost, standing alone behind the microphone, waiting for someone to figure out what was wrong. I suppose this is what happens when you don’t do a sound check, which Johnston skipped earlier in the day. The original plan was that Johnston and The Rayguns were to play 30 seconds of each song during soundcheck just to make sure that everyone was on the same page. It didn’t happen, and there was some concerns that the evening’s performance was going to be a train wreck. It was anything but.

Johnston started by playing a few new songs solo with his guitar. He apologized for fumbling some of the chords, then another guitarist took the stage and accompanied him on a couple classics including “Love in Vain” and a Beatles cover (“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”). Johnston left the stage for a few moments, only to reemerge with The Rayguns in tow, changing the entire tone of the performance to something more professional and classic. Having seen on YouTube a few of the other instances where Johnston performed with local acts, he probably wasn’t used to playing with a band of this caliber. The Rayguns were amazing, playing songs like “Fish” and “Rock This Town” and “True Love Will Find You in the End.” The problem was Johnston, whose voice began to break about 10 minutes into the set. By the midway point, he was struggling to sing. He acknowledged that he was losing his voice, but soldiered on heroically. After about five tunes with the band, Johnston said goodnight. The crowd chanted “Daniel” trying to get him out for an encore, but it didn’t happen. Instead Mike Friedman and the band came back out and explained that Johnston’s voice was gone. Friedman told the crowd that Daniel would love it if they sang him “Devil Town.” “He’s right back there, he can hear you,” Friedman said, leading the crowd in the a cappella tribute. It was a sweet moment.

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