Daniel Johnston Holds a Living Room in Awe, Briefly

Daniel Johnston
House Party Comedy
June 18, 2016

After Daniel Johnston’s Saturday night set in Houston, I wondered whether Mozart was ever booed following a live performance. It’s odd to consider today that one of the classical masters was a working musician during his time. Like any artist, he was prone to uneven performances. Today, Mozart is so revered it’s difficult to fathom he once was merely mortal and subject to criticism.

Johnston is also only a man, a fact known all too well by even the most casual of his followers. His ability to capture the best and worst of the human condition in less than five minutes over song after song is what endeared him to listeners in the first place. Then, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the poignant documentary detailing his own fragility and the art that came from this tenuous place, made him iconic.

Johnston was the featured performer at House Party Comedy’s ninth installment. He was slated for two shows, a 7 p.m. performance and another at 9 o’clock. He traveled at least an hour in driving rain from his Waller-area home to play three songs for a room of more than 100 eager fans. He opted against a second set and left the show immediately, presumably headed back to the confines of a safe place he calls home, a place the Houston Press recently visited.

Would Mozart have been chided by an audience had he abruptly called it a night during A Little Night Music? Maybe. But, based on audience reaction I saw Saturday night, I’d guess no. There’s a special reverence we hold for those we consider geniuses. You don’t boo genius when it does whatever genius does, especially if you’re only 20 or 30 feet away. Three songs proved to be enough for nearly every awe-struck listener in the room.

House Party Comedy’s host is local artist Jacob Calle. The Secret Group event has previously welcomed At the Drive-In’s Jim Ward and has big, top-secret plans for its tenth edition. But, as one partygoer said another before Johnston’s set, none had ever been as well-attended as this one. The space was shoulder-to-shoulder, which made it difficult – but not impossible – to drink the free Pabst Blue Ribbon on hand. This became vitally important once a summer thunderstorm fried a nearby transformer, knocking out power to more than 15,000 area homes, including Calle’s.

That set things back a bit, but local comics Addie Anderson, Dale Cheesman, Bob Biggerstaff and Andy Huggins kept things loose. Their diligent and hilarious work, and the promise of Johnston ahead, kept grumbling at bay. Johnston arrived during the power outage and hung out in the back of the venue. People whispered his name but didn’t approach him. He left for a bite to eat and returned as Joe Falladori was delivering a speech in honor of the City of Houston declaring the day “Daniel Johnston Day.” The address was stirring and ended with a well-worded reminder of why we were all there.

“Whenever the world tells you not to breathe, just think of Daniel,” Fallador wrote, “and pick up your pencil or marker or guitar or chord organ or anything you can get your hands on, anything at all, and take another breath.”

Johnston entered by way of a side staircase, so he didn’t have to navigate through the hordes of people who’d come to see him. Backed by Calle on keys, Whale Bones’ Austin Clark on guitar and David Gomez on drums, he sang a brief solo song to open the set, then went into “True Love Will Find You in the End” before closing with “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” He sang from a seated position on Calle’s living-room floor, with a TV that had just been running the Johnston documentary glowing over his shoulder. The room was quiet during each song, everyone leaning forward to hear every note. He flipped through pages in a binder, presumably reading the lyrics as he sang them.

And then, he was done, disappearing down the steps he’d just moments earlier ascended. No one complained. If anyone felt cheated, they kept this to themselves. Several people expressed something like gratitude for having been there to see the briefest of sets.  It may be too early to consider Johnston's prolific and impactful work alongside the Mozarts of the world, but at least on this night he was treated with the esteem of one of the masters.

Personal Bias: It would have been great to hear “Devil Town” and would have extended the show only by one minute. But, like virtually everyone else there, I was happy I got what I did. I have friends who love Bruce Springsteen, an artist whose music I could take or leave. When they try to tell me why he’s amazing, they invariably say something about how he plays three hour long concerts, which sounds especially hellish to me. I’ll take three Daniel Johnston songs over three hours of Springsteen 10 times out of 10. 

The Crowd: Practically no one as old as or older than the headliner. Respectful young people who appreciate artistic nuance and afforded Johnston a type of admiration most superstar mainstream artists will never know.

Random Notebook Dump: Muhammadali’s John Zambrano opened the night’s entertainment with a set of spirited pop songs about death and dying. Good stuff, as always. Also, as someone who sometimes houses traveling bands who are doing it for themselves, without labels or managers, it was a thrill to be in the company of someone who pioneered this ethic. This weekend, we had Wisconsin's We The Heathens and Illinois' The Suburbanists over and these kids — in their mid-twenties and from the Midwest — were amazed that I'd just witnessed a Johnston show. 

Finally, those wondering about refunds or rainchecks for the scratched late show are encouraged to check The Secret Group's Facebook page or the event page for updates.  
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.