Chicago, IL • February
It’s always amazing to see what connects with music fans and which artists will bring out fans even when a nasty Midwestern blizzard blows through Chicago hours before a show. Fans still come out, no matter what the weather is like, when the music is honest and its promises reach in and grip your heart tight.
Enter into the world of singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston and you’ll meet a master who’s perfected the art of intimate storytelling and songwriting since 1983’s Hi, How Are You, a perfection and appreciation that’s held steady in the independent underground ever since and grown more with the 2005 release of the documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
Before openers Chicago rock quintet Office took the stage, Presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama stared at me from the front of the double set of drum kits. Even though it was just a one-dimensional flyer of the Illinois Senator, it was still a night where the heated political race momentarily diverted my attention from the impending rock show about to start.
“It’s a pleasure to play with Daniel Johnston tonight, since he is the greatest songwriter in the country or world,” said Office frontman Scott Mason at the start of their set, which featured a rare double drum kit assault that added more muscle and ripples of rhythm to Office’s already addictive up tempo bursts of sly sunshine-pop goodness.
Opening with the title track from the band’s Scratchie Records debut, Night at the Ritz, and introducing a few new tracks, Office caught me off guard with what I missed when I saw them perform in December 2006. That show wasn’t anything that blew me away, but after listening to the new release and then seeing the band in action during this show, I have to admit I missed what makes Office a band that will hopefully crack the national scene on a larger scale soon.
Mason is a versatile alt-pop crooner who served time as an office manager in corporate America and then headed to art school where he began spending more time developing his songwriting. Influenced by David Bowie, The Cars, and Talking Heads, Mason creates his own take on the pop tune and creates complex, yet highly infectious pop songs that make you feel like you’ve traveled many miles in only a few minutes, transforming feelings felt while spinning on the hamster wheel of corporate cubical monotony and fighting the doldrums of office politics into pristine and addictively catchy pop songs that at their pleasure peak are three-minute spins through melodic candy stores. The Office set was clearly better than before due to Mason’s admiration of the night’s headliner.
Daniel Johnston’s songs are simple and raw expressions of human emotion. For ninety minutes, fans hung on every word, completely enraptured with eyes glued to Johnston’s every note and minute emotional inflection or quiver. Clad in t-shirt and sweatpants, he gripped the microphone and guitar tightly, chugging along through tracks from Songs of Pain and Welcome to My World, pausing at all the right moments to show his appreciation, leading the crowd into uncharted territory with his uneasy, yet completely engaging performance style, and finishing his solo set by imparting wisdom via “Life in Vain,” “Living Light,” “Grievances,” and Sparklehorse collaboration “Fear Yourself.”
After a short break, Johnston’s acoustic show grew muscles as Office joined him on stage for “Speeding Motorcycle” and a few others. It was a show that left me standing in the aftermath of dual revelatory appreciation at both Johnston’s set and a new perspective on Office. But mostly, it was Johnston’s one of a kind outpouring and therapeutic mix of pain, joy, and sorrow that swept me away and readied me to face the cold, swirling winds and mounds of snow waiting outside.