Ideally, one should see Daniel Johnston in a place like a retro, dull-colored living room – somewhere safe to let go of ego and allow for open weeping. Chelsea’s 700-capacity Highline Ballroom doesn’t exactly come to mind as one of those places, and yet Johnston has held two sold-out shows there in the last nine months alone.
At forty-seven years old — nearly three decades since beginning his romance with tape-deck recording — Johnston stood before a hipster-chic crowd in an oversized red tee-shirt and reaffirmed his role as the gatekeeper of the nine-year-old in all of us.
He hastily struck up a false start on his headless, oak guitar before playing a twangy opener “Mean Girls Give Pleasure.” Twice more he performed solo before being joined onstage by Brett Hartenbach, who wielded his own full-bodied acoustic guitar. For four songs, Hartenbach channeled the songwriter’s rhythm with an added pluck. Johnston, meanwhile, sang closed-eyed with a stranglehold on the mic stand – noticeably nervous, yet somehow perseverant.
As has become the norm on this tour, Johnston took a short break before returning as a frontman backed by the night’s opening act, Spanish Prisoners.
Understandably, Johnston can forgo a proper touring band – they’d only see the back half of each set. Musically speaking, his songs aren’t very complicated, so it must seem like a good idea to solicit his opener as an impromptu house band. But in reality, Johnston’s music craves one of two renditions: happy, jumpy and nervous – quintessentially Johnston – or flawlessly ornate like Hartenbach.
It was still a pleasure to hear Johnston belt out “Speeding Motorcycle” – made even more enchanting by gear-shaped lights whizzing around stage – and cover”You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” with gusto, but even that came at a price: filtering out a quartet of aesthetically unsound Brooklynites.
In a one-song encore, Johnston came back and sang “True Love Will Find You in the End.” It wasn’t catharsis, but it was probably the most endearingly positive thing felt by anybody in New York all week.