Reviews

Daniel Johnston + Calvin Johnson

Shawn Despres
Daniel Johnston + Calvin Johnson

Daniel Johnston + Calvin Johnson

City: Shibuya, Tokyo
Venue: Club Quattro
Date: 2003-02-23
It was an indie rock fan's wet dream come to life. A true clash of the titans as cult heroes Daniel Johnston and Calvin Johnson squared off in a no-holds-barred musical battle. In order to be fair to both contestants, a neutral setting was decided on for the match. The location chosen was a sold-out Club Quattro in Tokyo's ultra-hip Shibuya ward. From the time they each began recording music in the early '80s, Johnston and Johnson have both amassed huge underground followings. Daniel Johnston's homemade recordings gained notoriety as peers such as Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Jad Fair, Dinosaur Jr., and Kurt Cobain publicly sang their praises. Calvin Johnson became an indie legend for his work with Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, and the Halo Benders. Oh yes, and of course for founding the very influential and much-loved K Records. Both are extremely talented and fascinating musicians, but on this night only one could emerge victorious. The evening began with short surprise sets by Calvin Johnson's label mates, the Microphones and Little Wings. All three artists had just wrapped up a week-long Japanese tour, and perhaps Johnson felt that having his companions in his corner would provide him with a slight advantage over the early fan favorite Johnston. Once the crowd was good and warmed up, Johnson took to the stage amidst loud applause. With the spotlight squarely on him, the challenger decided to come out swinging. Although he isn't the world's greatest musician (he himself admitted during the show that anyone who sings a song he has written sings it better than him), there is something about Johnson that commands attention. His booming baritone and remarkable stage presence make it impossible not to be drawn to him. Tonight's performance was no different as Johnson's guitar playing, singing, and dancing were the clear focal point of the predominantly Japanese audience. Not a single sigh could be heard from the dead silent crowd of wildly-dressed teenage indie rockers and aging scenesters as they hung on Johnson's every word and movement. This worked out well for the Olympia, Washington native as he informed the audience after his first song that he was taping the show for his mother so that she could hear him play in Japan. As a result, he asked that people abstain from saying any swear words during his performance. His remarks garnered some laughs from the gaijin (Japanese for foreigners) in attendance, but were lost on most of the young Japanese fans. Regardless, Johnson's mother will no doubt receive a crystal clear recording. When playing live, Johnson does things that few other performers would be brave enough to do. Often ignoring his microphone, he uses the full range and volume of his voice to get across the emotions in his music. This, along with a wide range of interesting facial expressions and child-like dance moves, exposes him, making him appear more like a teenager singing to himself in his bedroom mirror instead of someone performing in front of several hundred people. Seeing Johnson so vulnerable encouraged his spectators to form a bond with him, believing they were witnessing something very special and intimate. As Johnson bellowed out the chorus to "Love Will Come Back Again", all the while doing some not-so-fancy two-stepping, a warm, collective smile spread across the face of all in attendance as they cheered him on. Concentrating mostly on material from his debut solo album, What Was Me, the energy level on stage and in the crowd came together about a minute into the seventh song of his set. Much to the delight of the audience, Johnson put down his guitar and jumped off the stage into the capacity crowd for an a cappella number. Walking the length of the floor, he danced with as many of the club's patrons as he could while still singing the song. Clapping along quickly, and then more slowly at Johnson's request, to provide a beat for the dancing, young members of the audience flooded the floor and gathered in a tight circle around Johnson and his giggling partners. As the song wound down, he thanked all who had danced with him and slowly made his way back up on stage for one more number (with the Microphones and Little Wings acting as his backing band), said "arigato" and headed for the dressing room. Fifteen minutes after Johnson and Co. finished, Daniel Johnston walked out, took a drink, placed his song book on the music stand beside his microphone and began to serenade the extremely appreciative audience. Although the crowd was thrilled to have the opportunity to interact with Calvin Johnson, it was quite evident that they were there to see Daniel Johnston. While his competition had delivered many jabs and fancy footwork, Johnston was just looking for a quick knockout punch. He came close to getting it on several occasions as he belted out his fantastic, bittersweet tales of love and life. The beauty of Johnston's music lies in its simplicity. His sweet, innocent, heartfelt lyrics instantly strike a chord in all those who take the time to listen to them. The first part of Johnston's performance consisted of several guitar songs. Singing with his eyes closed and feet nailed to the floor, he hardly acknowledged the club's patrons as he played. Between song banter was kept to a minimum as the singer-songwriter would pause between each number only long enough to take another drink and turn the page of his book. This didn't seem to bother his fans, though, as they would use the short opportunity to shout their approval and scream out "Daniel!" Halfway through his set he retreated to the side of the stage where a piano was awaiting him. He proceeded to play three more songs before thanking the crowd for coming out to watch the show. His performance ended with "True Love Will Find You in the End" from his 1990 release, and as he said, it was a good way to end a concert. The only downfall of his set was its length. With many of Johnston's dozen or so recorded albums hovering around the one hour mark, it was disappointing to only be treated to a 40-minute set. As soon as he left the stage, the audience began clapping and screaming for more. As the house lights came back on the crowd refused to leave, continuing to cheer loudly for their hero for 10 minutes until a Japanese voice came over the sound system and notified them that the show was over and there would be no encore. This great showdown was one people will be talking about for a long time. Both artists went the distance in this epic battle and as a result there was no clear winner. Without a TKO, the decision had to go the judges' scorecards. Although both turned in fantastic performances, Calvin Johnson was declared the winner of the bout in an extremely close decision. In the end, his charisma was just too much for Daniel Johnston to compete with. Perhaps if Johnston had given the fans a little more of what they wanted, the outcome would have been different.

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