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The Late Daniel Johnston Is Being Honored at The Kessler on Friday

Artists will share the stage at The Kessler Theater this Friday to honor the work of late Austin songwriter/artist Daniel Johnston.EXPAND
Artists will share the stage at The Kessler Theater this Friday to honor the work of late Austin songwriter/artist Daniel Johnston.
Jana Birchum/Getty Images

The beloved Texas-based songwriter and artist, Daniel Johnston, left this world back in September. But the influence his work has had on music and art will keep him alive forever. This Friday, several acts will take the stage at The Kessler for a Johnston tribute show, ensuring the fire behind this eccentric figure never dies out.

For the last month, collaborative artwork by Johnston and Jeff Wheeler, a visual artist from Lubbock, has been on display at the Oak Cliff venue. Jeff Liles, The Kessler's artistic director, said the work (60 individual pieces) was being shown at The Heights in Houston for two months before Johnston died. A little over half of the pieces were then brought to The Kessler for a show commemorating the late artist, but it will be taken down this weekend.

The Daniel Johnston Songbook is part of a series at The Kessler called Homage Nation. This series highlights different influential musicians by bringing artists together for cover performances of their songs.

Austin artist Kathy McCarty, Jad Fair of Half Japanese, Tim DeLaughter from The Polyphonic Spree, John Dufilho of The Deathray Davies, Dallas band The Sutcliffes, along with local singer-songwriters Paul Slavens and Jacob Metcalf will share the Kessler stage to help honor Johnston. Everyone on the bill has either played with Johnston or been heavily influenced by his work.

McCarty, along with the band she is most known for, Glass Eye, was one of the first act's Johnston opened for. She later put out several solo albums, including her 2005 release Dead Dog's Eyeball, which, she says, is now considered the premier, interruptive Daniel Johnston record.

"A lot of people have difficulty getting into Daniel's music because of the lo-fi quality of it and his odd presentation," McCarty says. "What I tried to do with Dead Dog's Eyeball was make the music accessible for pretty much anyone. If somebody's the kind of person that doesn't get what the hoopla of Daniel Johnston's about, come to this show and you'll find out."

When Johnston would come to town to play, he would often look for locals to back him up. At his last show at The Kessler back in 2013, Johnston played two songs by himself before exiting the stage. When he returned, local legends The Baptist Generals were behind him.

Slavens, a member of the band, says playing and talking with Johnston was like a dream come true.

“He was just as sweet as could be,” Slavens says. “I asked him if he would draw me his signature space creature and he hand-drew a space creature and I got it framed and now it hangs on my wall.”

Slavens says he was a little late to the party when it came to Johnston’s music. It wasn’t until he began hosting his radio show, which airs on Sundays on 91.7 KXT, that someone sent Slavens a cover of Johnston’s song “My Yoke is Heavy” by Sparklehorse.

Some people, Slavens says, tend to get too caught up in Johnston’s unusual personality and the manifestation of his work — emphasized by his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But, Slavens says, what he hopes people walk away with from this show is that it’s the songs themselves that are beautifully transcendent.

“I like everything about Daniel,” Slavens says. “But I just love those songs.”

It’s all part of the same package, he says: Johnston’s art and his personality. The thing about Johnston, though, is that all the different parts of the package are beautiful by themselves.

Local musician Metcalf says he didn’t discover Johnston until 2005, around the same time the documentary about the artist, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, came out. Metcalf found him immediately compelling, he says, because Johnston was somebody who lived in an imaginary realm, which he’s always identified with.

“In some ways, I see Daniel Johnston as this man who suffered and struggled and wanted to love and understand,” Metcalf says. “He saw his limitations and built them around himself like [they were] his sandcastles. And I’ve always felt that that’s kind of the way I operate.”

One Johnston song Metcalf really identifies with is “The Monster Inside of Me.”

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“I think guilt is such a big part of the culture of the South and I think guilt can be crippling,” he says. “When I hear Daniel Johnston sing ‘The Monster Inside of Me,’ I imagine someone who is just struggling with self-defeat and disempowerment. It really tugs at me.”

Metcalf says empathy should be the currency of choice for years to come and that The Daniel Johnston Songbook show can kick-start this.

“It could be a flashpoint,” he says. “It could be an opportunity to talk about how our heroes are broken. We’re all uniquely beautiful and we’re all uniquely equipped to bring something to the table. If I have any aspirations for this show, it would be that we can continue that conversation.”

Tickets for the show this Friday at The Kessler are $22 at prekindle.com. The bar opens at 6 p.m., and showtime is 8 p.m.

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