Tag Archives: philadelphia

Hi, How Are You: Daniel Johnston At Union Transfer

Daniel Johnston returns to Philly. 

“I love to tour.  But it’s so, well, it’s kind of scary, actually.  It’s kind of scary.  I’m happy to get out and see everybody, and, you know . . . but it’s scary…”

Daniel Johnston doesn’t make eye contact with me for the duration of our interview, which lasted only a few minutes, in his dressing room, the evening of his show last week.  He’s decidedly shy, sort of uncomfortable around me at first.

“What’s scary about it, you don’t like being on stage?” I suggested.

“That must be it,” he said.  “‘Cause once I’m on stage, like when I try to play my own songs on my guitar, I just can’t do it very well, you know?”  He clearly took some comfort in his remedy: “Tonight’s show was changed, upon my request.  I’m gonna do the whole show with the band, because I do a lot better with the band.”

The band he’s talking about is Philly’s own indie rockers Sweet Lights, the brainchild of Shai Halperin, whose burgeoning recording career saw some success with other local bands The Capitol Years and The War On Drugs.  Halperin opened up that night with a few solo songs — euphonic vocals that brought the intonation of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour to mind, an electric guitar, and a handful of sound loops — before being joined by a full band to round out the set.

And when they returned after a short break, Johnston emerged along with them, in the same gray sweat suit and house shoes in which he had met me backstage a couple hours prior, and took the microphone.  And there, on the stage, facing a preemptive ovation from a crowded house, he seemed comfortable, as comfortable as an innately talented artist should be at the helm of his own show.  As comfortable as anyone who ever wears a sweat suit.

Having started off recording his own compositions on a little boom box at home, Johnston’s music began to gain notoriety when he moved to Austin, Texas, in the mid-eighties.  He told me, “I was poor, and I was just making tapes for my friends for years, and they would just treat me like a celebrity, they’d turn the tape recorder on and they would interview me and stuff – it was hilarious…”  Johnston was somewhat warmer, at this point, having taken some delight in these memories.  A degree of genuine joy was now evident.  “I mean, back in those days, a long long time ago, they made me feel like more of a star than these days, even with the big crowds.  They made me feel famous.  I sort of miss that.”

Speaking of fame, Johnston’s popularity surged when Kurt Cobain wore a shirt that featured one of his drawings to the MTV Music Awards in 1992, hurtling Johnston into the spotlight, at least momentarily, and resulting in thousands of new fans discovering his music.  And it wasn’t just Cobain who championed the underground singer and songwriter: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sings Johnston’s hit “Walking The Cow” routinely at both solo and Pearl Jam shows, and Yo La Tengo have made a favorite of his song “Speeding Motorcycle.”  And Johnston’s tribute record, a double disc called “Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered,” released in 2004, featured twelve songs that were both performed by the artist himself and also juxtaposed with covers of those same songs by the likes of Beck, the Eels, Bright Eyes, The Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, T.V. On The Radio, and Death Cab For Cutie, among others.  All told, it’s a nice panel of names to have as fans in your corner.

When I asked Johnston what it meant to him when he found out that Cobain publicly declared his love for him, he responded exuberantly, and recounted the moment.  “My ex-manager came to visit, and showed me [Cobain] wearing a ‘Hi, How Are You’ t-shirt on MTV – you know, it was hanging on my wall!”  I noted the obvious: “Sure, that was your drawing.”  He said, “yeah!  And so, you know.  That was pretty cool.  He was really famous.”

When asked if that had encouraged him to continue writing his music, in any way, Johnston said, “nahh,” in an enthusiastic whisper.  “I love writing.  That’s what I like best, writing.”

“And not performing, so much?” I asked.

“Yeah.  That’s true,” he replied.

Frankly, it was almost hard to tell that night that this was, in fact, the truth.  Maybe it was that he did take his comfort in being backed by a band that sounded as good as the guys from Sweet Lights that night, but he seemed perfectly happy up there on a bright stage, holding his microphone, referring often to his notebook of lyrics, reveling in the applause, the cheers, and the fan declarations of love for the singer throughout a set that covered crowd favorites like “Speeding Motorcycle,” “Fake Records Of Rock And Roll,” “Walking The Cow,” and “True Love Will Find You In The End” (his only encore song), as well as covers of the three John Lennon compositions “I’m So Tired,” “Isolation,” and “Jealous Guy.”

Either way, let’s hope he comes back again soon in support of his new record, “Space Ducks: Soundtrack,” his eighteenth studio record and his first new album in three years.

And if a band is what the man needs to feel comfortable on stage, well then someone, please, get the man a band.



City Hall Presents Spring Series Finale: Philly’s Nikki Jean!

“City Hall Presents” will be back in a couple weeks.  Photos by Daniel Wooden and Joshua Pelta-Heller

Philly soul-singer Nikki Jean wrapped up City Hall Presents’ Spring series, seven installments that featured local artists as varied as <fidget>’s eclectic found object jazz, to Marina Vishnyakova ‘s classical jazz violinJazz Bridge’s hard bop, to tap and hip-hop dance performances by Lady Hoofers and Rhennie Harris Puremovement, respectively.

Nikki gracefully and informally played a set that offered her hits, her collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and one or two new cuts, with breaks to connect with the crowd, and sultry vocals at turns almost too powerful for the mayor’s reception room PA system to handle.

Nikki told us that she’s slated to present Milkboy’s Melodic Mondays on 5/21.

City Hall Presents will be back with a Summer series of free outdoor events in June.  Look for an announcement of the schedule, as well as our wrap-up of the Spring series, coming soon.



Raekwon’s Unexpected Victory Tour

Raekwon of The Wu-Tang Clan blessed the people with some real good hip-hop at The Blockley!

Some real hip-hop heads were at The Blockley last night to show some real support for the ’good’ hip-hop that was there. Lots of positivity and energy were in the crowd. MC Elixir was the great host for the night and DJ Aktiv killed it on the turn tables. The opening acts warmed up the crowd with their great performances for Maino and Raekwon. MC Elixir made it more enjoyable by letting some heads in the crowd get their little “gig” for the night letting them spit a few written raps or freestyles.

Maino came out with lots of hype and energy, playing a few of his hits like “Hi Hater”, “All of the Above”, “Let it Fly” and many more. Raekwon then came on next and started it with “C.R.E.A.M” and many other hits from the Wu-Tang Clan. He also did his solo stuff from the “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” albums. It’s great to see Raekwon still going on tour and doing music for his fans.

Wu-Tang was slated to release a album next month, but it failed to be completed since things aren’t the same anymore for the crew.

Either way, Philly has always shown much love for some legendary hip-hop.


One Man’s Reaction to the 2012 Welcome America Lineup

Putting Questlove on the hot seat.

To be completely honest, I didn’t really care for last year’s Wawa Welcome America concert, presided over by The Roots’ Questlove. Part of the reason was that I was wrong in thinking it would be a Roots’ show, with small sets by the other acts they had on the bill: Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael McDonald, Sara Bareilles and more. Instead, we were treated to a concert featuring The Roots as the world’s most versatile backing band and mildly entertaining, occasionally painful sets by the headliners. And while The Roots’ chameleon-like ability to back any musician on Earth is certainly nothing to laugh at, it’s just not as good as The Roots, the world’s most entertaining live hip hop act by themselves.

Now I fully realize that a show like the Welcome America concert is designed to appeal to a mass audience. I get that. It’s why I didn’t do anything drastic after last year’s show like un-followQuestlove on the Twitter machine. But in this dude’s humble opinion, part of what makes The Roots so dynamic and impressive is how universally appealing they are. With every passing day, The Roots are edging towards Bob Marley’s status in terms of how many different people are fans of them. Call me a Roots’ homer, but I think if you just threw the Roots on stage by themselves (maybe with Dice Raw and someone like Talib Kweli joining them) you’d have a pretty dope show that would appeal to practically everyone. Heck, you could even add John Legend…a little something for the ladies and Temple alums if you want to really make sure you touch all the bases.

This week, the line-up was announced for this year’s Welcome America show and once again, the endlessly busy Questlove is serving as musical director and the Roots will be back on stage. Joining them will be Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates,) Common, Queen Latifah, Joe Jonas and more.

Initial reaction? Well I didn’t even know Queen Latifah was even doing music anymore, I thought she was just doing terrible movies and I’m cool with Hall playing, provided he doesn’t skip “Maneater.” I have no feelings about Joe Jonas, largely because I never developed a particular allegiance to him or either one of his brothers and as for Common, well I guess that’s kind of cool. Is it too early to request “The Light?”

I’m sure the show will be fine and I’m sure it will be fun. The Roots will be tight and consummate professionals because I’m guessing that’s how they wake up in the morning- as consummate professionals. But I’d like to ask just one thing…more Roots please. One or two songs, or even worse, a medley of half of two songs, just isn’t good enough. I want at least five songs (and if one of those could be “Lighthouse” off of undun, that’d be awesome) from The Roots this year. It can be at the beginning, the middle or the end- but at just one point during this whole Welcome to America thing, I’d like to see some semblance of a Roots’ show.

I don’t think that’s asking a lot.

Your move Questlove.

The Wawa Welcome America concert starts at 7pm on July 4th on the Ben Franklin Parkway.