Column 159 — Playing with a troubled genius; Barack O’Conor tomorrow at the Civic…

Category: Blog — @ 6:47 pm February 6, 2008

As of this writing (lunchtime Feb. 6) there are still tickets available to Saturday’s Daniel Johnston show at Slowdown with Flowers Forever and Jake Bellows. You should go.

Column 159: Daniel Johnston and The Rayguns
Local boys back troubled genius

I wasn’t planning to see Daniel Johnston at Slowdown on Saturday.

Sure, like you, I loved the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. I rooted for the poor bastard as he battled through mental illness and a broken heart to write a lifetime’s worth of ballads to the unrequited love of his life, Laurie; songs that would be covered by some of music’s biggest stars including Yo La Tengo, The Reivers, Beck, Tom Waits, The Flaming Lips and our own Bright Eyes.

I know he’s a genius and all, but hey, $18 is $18. Johnston alone behind a piano or guitar is less than enticing to me. And (based on the documentary) there’s always a chance that, after laying down the cash, he could have one of his “episodes” and not even show up.

Then I heard about the band. At each city on this tour, a local band learns Johnston’s music and backs him on stage. The Omaha band on which the honor was bestowed is The Rayguns, a talented conglomeration of singer/songwriters that includes Reagan Roeder, Kyle Harvey and Mike Friedman (Whipkey Three drummer Scott “Zip”Zimmerman also is part of the Johnston band).

The Rayguns? Now that could be interesting. Reagan and the rest of the combo — all long-time Johnston fans — explained how the once-in-a-lifetime gig went down from the confines of Roeder’s and Harvey’s new music store in the heart of downtown Benson — Side Street Music. Located one door south of The Barley Street Tavern (just south of Maple on North 62nd Street), Side Street is a combination guitar and instrument shop, used clothing store, practice space, recording studio and place for musicians to hang out. Nothing fancy, merely a home away from home that resembles a musician’s messed-up apartment more than store.

We started at Side Street; we ended up at the Barley Street Tavern with a table of beers.

“We were just sitting here at the bar one night and Jim Johnson (of One Percent Productions, who booked the show) plopped down next to us and asked if we wanted to play the show,”Roeder said. “We felt mostly disbelief that it would happen.”

Disbelief vanished with receipt of an e-mail from Johnston’s management outlining conditions for the gig. The band was sent a list of 15 songs from which to choose for the performance. They picked 10. Among them, “Try to Love,” “Love Not Dead,” “Silly Love,” “Funeral Home,” “Speeding Motorcycle,” “True Love Will Find You in the End,” “Devil Town,” “Living My Life in Vain” and “Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

“He might play from the list or he could throw something at us,” Roeder said. “If it’s a train wreck, we’ll just laugh and move on. He’s not too worried if it’s not perfect.”

An amazing thing about Johnston’s music, Harvey said, “is that people have heard most of the songs before but don’t realize he wrote them because so many bands have covered them.”

Learning the tunes was both easy and difficult, Harvey said, because while Johnston’s “ideas are simple, they include some challenging, quirky transitions.”
Roeder said Johnston has an odd sense of timing.

“He doesn’t stay on a certain tempo a lot of the time,” he said. “Most are three chords, but he organizes them in a unique way. What makes them interesting is his vocal melodies and lyrics. We just play them like we would if we wrote them. We don’t play them like he did. The evening is all about Daniel. We’re there to help him have fun. I want to be in the background and let him do his thing for his fans.”

But what about his potential, uh, craziness? Reportedly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, anyone who’s seen the documentary knows Johnston’s history of unpredictable behavior. It doesn’t seem to bother the band.

“I think it’ll be funny if he’s a nut,” Roeder said. “He’s sung these songs a thousand times. If he’s crazy, he’s crazy. If he’s not, he’s not.”

Friedman said the band can only be as prepared as possible.

“We’ll know it backwards and forwards, and what happens, happens,” he said. “The only thing that matters is that he’s happy and the crowd has a good time.”

The Omaha guys have enjoyed preparing for the concert. Fact is, this marks the first time they’ve played together on stage in months, having been sidelined by a broken keyboard that just returned from the shop. They plan to hit the studio and return soon to the local stage.

But for the past three weeks, they’ve focused on that devil from West Texas with the cartoon-ish voice and the beautiful mind.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing just to get to see him play,” Friedman said. “Playing with him is a nice treat.”

Harvey still can’t believe the Rayguns are playing the show.

“It’s already one of my favorite experiences we’ve had as a band,” he said. “What’s better than to get to hang out with my best friends and learn a bunch of Daniel Johnston songs?”

Tonight at Slowdown Jr., it’s Yeasayer with MGMT. This one just sold out, though, which kind of sucks because I was thinking of going. Too bad they can’t move it into the big room, but I have a feeling they’re setting up some Barack O’Conor-related rally stuff in there. Imagine rocking among the bunting.

And speaking of Barack O’Conor, according to today’s Omaha World-Herald (here), Oberst will “play three or four songs at the candidate’s rally Thursday at the Civic Auditorium.” The doors open for that rally at 3:30 p.m., and admission is free. If you didn’t sign up for tickets for the after-party at Slowdown tomorrow night, however, you’re out of luck cuz they’re all gone.

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