And so my week at the music portion of SXSW in Austin commences. The first event: “Space Ducks,” a launch party for Daniel Johnston’s new (first!) comic book and app (yes, app) of the same name, which occurred last night at the Belmont on 6th Street. For those who aren’t familiar with Johnston, he’s a singer-songwriter most known for his incessant recording of ultra lo-fi tapes which he would create live in one take on a four-track, draw the artwork for, and hand-distribute out of Austin as a youngster in the ’80s and ’90s. He briefly encountered legitimate fame when Kurt Cobain wore his t-shirt in this photo and was the subject of this fantastic 2005 documentary about his career and struggle with mental health issues. Oh, and a few years ago the mayor of Austin declared May 5th “Daniel Johnston Day.”
Johnston has become an iconic figure of “outsider music,” loosely defined as solo work that is 100 percent genuine, zero percent ambiguity, and possibly requiring no technical ability whatsoever. He inspired a number of artists to have the courage to belt out their most personal songs nightly with no idea how to hit a note with their voices or guitar. Thus, the bill was heavy on these artists, if not ones that gravitate much closer towards “Johnston is a songwriting genius” than “Johnston is a talentless schizophrenic who people find entertaining to observe.” Most brought a Johnston reinterpretation with their setlists.
But the evening started out on two plugged-in notes with Dinosaur Feathers and Caveman (listed on the bill as “a band we’re not allowed to announce”), who both appeared in peak form with their individual brands of indie rock and folk. Following Caveman was R. Stevie Moore, who certainly resembles Johnston the closest of all the openers and finished by leaving us with the pearl of outsider wisdom of the night: “Long live insider outsider music. Don’t believe mainstream for one goddamn second,” right before standing up, staggering a few steps and falling on his face.
Self-proclaimed Johnston disciple – who too is a comic book artist – Jeffrey Lewis was next to the stage. After a few originals including a very well-received “Time Trade” and one of his signature slideshow/songs, he brought on frequent collaborator and self-proclaimed Lewis disciple Kimya Dawson before transitioning into her three-song solo set. Catchiest refrain of the night: “Space ducks, space ducks/Outer space ducks/Not human race ducks/Not of-this-place ducks,” from the “Space Ducks” theme song as performed by Lewis, Dawson and Graham Wilkinson (The Bundles).
Dawson kept her set short and sweet with three songs, but it was far from a disinterested one. Actually, even after following tough act Lewis, she seemed to deliver more humor and honesty than any of the prior openers. Case in point: “I drive a minivan/I’ve got junk in the trunk/I think Danny Devito is a total hunk.”
After a short set from Okkervil River’s Will Sheff and a single Johnston tribute song from three “special guest” singer-songwriters (likely because the event had fallen a bit behind schedule at that point), Motopony and their vaguely-Zeppelin hairstyles went on. Motopony was listed as Johnston’s backing band, and as a less reputable artist than many who had already performed, they were surrounded by much curiosity from attendees. They came through by delivering the most technical and energetic rock (tastefully too, without shamelessly replicating ’60s-’70s rock like I somehow thought they might based on their appearance) of the night – until Built to Spill, of course.
That brings us to the man/myth/legend/curiosity/most shabbily dressed attendee of the night, Mr. Johnston himself. Sporting grey sweatpants and a mysteriously stained navy blue T-shirt, Johnston shouted and stabbed at words through three hard rockin’ numbers with his hard rockin’ band with a hard rockin’ name. The near-capacity crowd watched on in wonderment as Motopony essentially played a few more songs with a new singer that surely made at least a few casual attendees wonder what this man had ever done to earn so many loyal fans. (By the way, this is what he used to look like.) Johnston seemed painfully anxious – and that became very clear when he emptied half a cup of water on his belly while attempting to drink it – but also visibly delighted, and weirdly, very much in his element. Satisfying the last few in the audience who actually expected him to play his classics, Johnston ended the set with an all-inclusive singalong of “True Love Will Find You in the End,” with all the still-present openers beside him.
Co-headliners Built to Spill couldn’t begin their set until 1:15, and frontman Doug Martsch vowed to “play until they make us stop,” which was going to be 2:00 regardless. It’s a common rock show cliché, but true to their word, they kept going until the Belmont’s people had to get on the sound system to tell them to stop, prompting a chorus of boos. But the elder indie statesmen were still able to cap it off by driving through an extended version of “Conventional Wisdom,” effectively ensuring everyone would still be going home happy.
Post and photography by Steven Arroyo