Audiences don’t go to see Daniel Johnston in concert expecting to hear a lovely singing voice or to see a polished performer. They go to see an artist perform his work.
Daniel Johnston did just that, delivering an incredible performance art piece when he opened his “Hi, How are You?” tour, which is being billed as his final tour, on Thursday night in New Orleans’ Joy Theater with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band backing him up.
As billed, the show started at 7 p.m. with a screening of the 2005 documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.”
As the film ended, the screen rose to reveal Johnston onstage flanked by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — Ben Jaffe (standup bass); Kyle Roussel (piano); Clint Maedgen (saxophone); Ronell Johnson (trombone); Walter Harris (drums); Branden Lewis (trumpet) — as they launched into a deep jazzy melody backing Johnston’s high-pitched screaming rendition of “Walking the Cow.”
It was awkward to be sure. Johnston’s timing was slightly off, his hands shaking Parkinson’s-style as he caterwauled into the microphone, sometimes brilliantly and impressively in time with the backing music, at other times off askance.
Then they launched into “Life in Vain,” with Johnston’s vocals screaming through the backing music.
After that song, Johnston bolted for stage left and the Jazz Band introduced octogenarian saxophonist Charlie Gabriel from the neighborhood to jam for three great jazzy instrumentals.
Johnston returned with applause and prodding from his bandmates and cheers from the audience of some 300.
He led the crowd in singing “Funeral Home, funeral home; goin’ to the funeral home; got me a coffin, shiny and black; I’m going to the funeral and I’m never comin’ back.” His timing was off, but it only made the performance and sing-along better. At one point he broke into speaking about mortality, telling the audience, “People die, everyone dies. You will all die one day.”
Then the band did a rockin’ rendition of, “‘Go’ — go go go go go,” in an odd and surreal performance that was breathtaking, watching the spectacle on the verge of going off the rails. The Preservation Hall Band more than adequately compensated for Johnston’s lacking.
They followed that by “Rock’N’Roll/EGA.” Johnston’s vocals were sheer punk — “Time passed me by; I was more dead than alive. . . That rock’n’roll” — juxtaposed with the backing New Orleans jazz tones was thrilling.
He was the living embodiment of the lyrics: “More dead than alive.”
Then they did “True Love Will Find You in the End,” which started out good and went well for a while until Johnston knocked his setlist off the lectern and had what appeared to be a slight panic attack before screaming, “Speeding Motorcycle,” and bolting off stage left.
The band made it clear the show was over and the house lights came up.
As sparse and brief as the performance was, it delivered. It was a spectacle. It was spontaneous. It was awkward. It was performance art, disturbing and beautiful. It was punk rock, and it is what everyone there paid to see, the legend perform his weird and wonderful work with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.