Cult singer-songwriter and outsider artist Daniel Johnston is currently finishing a limited string of live performances that have been billed as his “final tour.” On Wednesday, the artist made a stop in Portland at Revolution Hall for an intimate, and heartfelt sold-out show.
The night began in a slightly unorthodox fashion — with a film screening. The 2005 documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” took the place of an opening act, and detailed the artist’s storied past and lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Among other things, the film touched on Johnston’s early life, his rise in the underground Texas music scene and his encounters with other artists — such as Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, and Jad Fair of Half Japanese — during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. A movie screening before the concert might have been a little strange, but it made sense — it’s hard to imagine how any act would have been able to open up for such a distinct artist.
Most of the venue had filled before the movie even started. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” is now over a decade old, and it’s rare to see it on the big screen with such a large audience. The communal viewing only added to the experience of the film. The crowd reacted well to the film’s often comedic tone, and many laughs were shared throughout an otherwise emotional movie.
Shortly after the film, Johnston walked on stage and was met with a loud applause. The start of his performance was sudden, and he began to sing without introduction before the house music had even faded completely. The set started off with “Walking the Cow,” a favorite off of the 1983 album “Hi, How Are You.” It featured a solo piano accompaniment alongside Johnston’s own vocals.
For this night of the tour, Johnston was backed on stage by the members of Built to Spill; however, the band’s presence was hardly emphasized. In fact, the band was never even introduced. Guitarist Doug Martsch’s typical noisy and complex playing was often simplified to basic chords; however, it perfectly matched Johnston’s raw songwriting. Martsch also sang alongside Johnston during a few songs.
A performance of “Love Wheel,” which comes from Johnston’s 1994 major label release “Fun,” created one of the liveliest moments of the night. Martsch’s guitar amp was turned up, and Johnston gave a vigorous vocal performance that matched the song’s energetic rock ‘n roll vibe.
Another highlight of the set was the sentimental “Life in Vain.” Johnston’s lyrics — “flip on your TV, and try to make sense out of that” — displayed a lasting relevancy that garnered cheers from the audience.
Johnston is now 56 and continues to deal with mental health issues such as manic depression. Performing was clearly a struggle. Johnston remained seated for the entirety of the set, and he refrained from talking too much. His hands would shake violently as he sang, and his voice was often strained or offkey. But none of this took away from Johnston’s beautiful and emotional performance, which finds a strength in vulnerability.
Everything came together perfectly on “Speeding Motorcycle,” the penultimate song of the set. Johnston sang passionately, and the band members gradually built the song into a loud and discordant finale that kept all of the optimism of the song’s lyrics: “Cause we don’t need reason and we don’t need logic / We’ve got feeling and we’re dang proud of it.” Coming from Johnston, this felt sincere, inspiring, and even magical.
It might have been a little early for this, but Johnston finished off his set with what he called a Christmas wish: the emotional “True Love Will Find You In The End.” At the song’s end, he gave a simple thank you and walked off the stage as the crowd erupted into a standing ovation. Over the years, Daniel Johnston has touched many people with his music, and this show made it easy to see why.