VerseChorusVerse and Cashier No9 bookend a manic performance from one of Kurt Cobain's heroes
It’s a natural facet of our psyche that we have expectations, but sometimes they can be a dangerous thing.
Take VerseChorusVerse, aka Tony Wright, formerly of the North Coast noise rock band And So I Watch You From Afar. Anyone expecting the all-out kinetic assault of his former band is likely to be perplexed by the sight of one solitary figure on the stage, hiding behind an acoustic guitar and a mop of curly ginger hair.
However, as Wright begins to play, it becomes immediately apparent that his metamorphosis from axe wielding blur of energy to acoustic troubadour is a natural one, and a rewarding development for those who are prepared to stick with him.
The songs strike a balance between folky ballads in the vein of Woody Guthrie – all polemics and fire – and stark, haunting, late-night musings. ‘You Can’t Win Back Your Freedom (If You’ve Never Been Free at All)’ demands to be sang as an anthem at mass protests, whilst ‘Spiders’ is sure to soundtrack someone’s long, dark night of the soul in the immediate future.
Wright is emerging as a solo performer, and his ability to command the attention of the audience is flourishing. It might take a little longer before he is able to fully escape the spectre of his old band, but the road ahead looks very promising.
In contrast to the earnest exuberance of VerseChorusVerse, Daniel Johnston shuffles onto the stage wearing an oversized grey sweatshirt, clutching a tiny guitar.
The audience – predictably – greet his arrival with shouts and cheers of, 'Hi! How are you!', the words which have become an unofficial slogan for Johnston since Kurt Cobain famously wore a t-shirt with the words emblazoned across it, bringing his music to a global audience.
Cobain’s endorsement was key as, without the clout of perhaps the biggest rock star on the planet at the time, Johnston could feasibly have performed to empty rooms forever more. A cause célèbre for over 20 years, his struggle with mental illness has been a major theme in his work, his alienation and difficulty to connect with the world providing him with a unique and insightful perception on our lives.
The 2006 documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston brought him a level of recognition only equalled by Cobain’s previous endorsement, and it’s a safe bet to say that a large portion of the almost capacity audience in the Empire Music Hall are most familiar with him from the film.
But it’s one thing to watch a bleakly humorous documentary about one man’s struggle with mental illness and his subsequent rise to fame as a rock star, it’s quite another to watch an obviously mentally ill, overweight 51 year old struggling to play a guitar whilst spitting out his heartfelt words.
The initial hoots and hollers subside as the audience watch intently the spectacle on stage, perhaps unsure how to respond. Each song is met with enthusiastic cheering and shouts of support, but the whole thing walks a fine tightrope between Triumph Over Adversity and Ghoulish Spectacle.
From the initial reverence, there spreads a wave of talking, occasionally threatening to rise up and overwhelm his fragile performance. However, before the audience’s attention is lost completely, Johnston leaves the stage briefly, returning with Cashier No9 in tow, providing him with a full band to play with for the remainder of the evening.
When Cashier No9 lock in behind him, Johnston rises to the challenge, his vocals stronger and his presence somehow amplified by the stomping rock and roll monster behind him. The audience are immediately swept up by the sound, and we are treated to a selection of some of Johnston’s best loved songs, with ‘Fake Records of Rock and Roll’ becoming the towering ‘tribute’ to rock that it was always meant to be, and ‘Casper The Friendly Ghost’ giving off a warm glow that touches more than a few hearts.
With an encore of ‘True Love Will Find You in the End’ it seems as though Johnston’s rock and roll dream has become a reality. He’s touring the world, and audiences adore him (in the main). His reality might not match ours, per se, but he seems to be enjoying himself, and within strictly defined parameters, the audience are prepared to let him do whatever he wants to.