Bad Weather California frontman Chris Adolf had been a longtime fan of Daniel Johnston, who died Wednesday at the age of 58. While living in Grand Junction, Adolf drove to Denver to see the Texas-based outsider singer-songwriter and visual artist play at the 15th Street Tavern, where Johnston drank most of a case of bottled water.
"He didn’t drink each bottle," Adolf says. "He would open a bottle, drink a little bit, set it down and play a song. Then open a new bottle after the next song and so forth."
So when Adolf, who has loved Johnston's music ever since hearing "Speeding Motorcycle" years ago, was asked by AEG Presents Rocky Mountains talent buyer Scott Campbell if Bad Weather California wanted to back Johnston up at the Ogden Theatre on April 5, 2008 — which would be Johnston's last time performing in Denver — Adolf agreed right away, without asking the band first.
For years when Johnston would tour, he’d invite local bands in various cities to back him up, something Adolf equates to what crooners would do in the ’50s. Adolf says that after getting the word from Campbell, the band had about a week to prepare for the gig. Johnston’s brother, Dick, sent Adolf a list of forty songs and had them choose fifteen to learn.
Adolf says Johnston’s early recordings — the ones before the Butthole Surfers got involved and Kramer got involved in producing — were loose and raw, and he figured Johnston would approach the songs in a similar way live. They originally thought they’d have to watch him and maybe follow him if he jumped a beat.
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“We planned on it, and that’s a hard way to do it,” Adolf says. “That’s a hard way to play music. He’s kind of a non-rhythmic guy, and you have to be ready to jump if he jumps. If he drops a rhythm. If he changes a rhythm. If he drops his whole bridge or chorus, then get with him quick. We’d have to adjust, because that’s the way I heard his music.”
Adolf, Bad Weather California bassist Joe Sampson, drummer Xandy Whitsel and keyboardist Adam Baumeister, along with guests Roger Green and Erin Roberts of Porlolo, were prepared for that. But Adolf says when they rehearsed with Johnston the afternoon of the show, he immediately realized that Johnston wasn’t as loose as he’d expected.
“Whatever pocket we got, he got right in the pocket with his vocals,” Adolf says. “He was actually a tight musician, which is not what he’s known for. He’s actually known for being quite loose and lo-fi.”
Roberts, who calls Johnston a “hero of the artistic outsider underground, captain of songs for the lonely, the love-worn and hopeful,” wasn’t actually part of Bad Weather California, but she invited herself into the band for that show.
“I was getting on stage with my trumpet for that show, no matter what,” Roberts says.
She says that when the musicians showed up to the green room, Johnston was drinking from a liter of Mountain Dew and eating oranges.
“He was fairly withdrawn at first, and I had a hard time imagining how he was going to get on that stage,” Roberts says. “Suddenly, he perked up and excitedly told me that I reminded him of Miss Hathaway from The Beverley Hillbillies. Things animated from there.”
From the green room, Johnston listened to Bad Weather California sound-check a few songs, and Adolf says when they went back to the room, Johnston was really enthusiastic, saying the act sounded like the Grateful Dead.
“And we all just kind of looked at each other and shrugged,” Adolf says. “We were like, huh, okay. He was tired and quiet when he got there. After we rocked with him on a rehearsal, he was kind of fired up. He said the Grateful Dead thing again, and we didn’t know what to make of it. The Grateful Dead can be a great compliment — or an insult.”
Finally, Baumeister got up the nerve to ask Johnston if he liked the Dead.
“And Daniel was like, ‘Oh, I love the Grateful Dead. I saw them in Austin. They really knew how to get everyone dancing.'”
Adolf remembers playing about ten songs with Johnston, running through cuts like “Rock’n Roll/EGA” and “Love and Dead” before Johnston and his brother came out for an acoustic set.
“I don't remember much about playing on stage, because it was totally eclipsed by my experience watching him from the crowd as he went into his solo set,” Roberts says. “The audience was jammed to the front, singing along, cheering wildly, and Daniel was totally transformed. His set was powerful and intense.”
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Adolf watched Johnston’s solo set, which included cuts like “True Love Will Find You in the End” and a cover of the Beatles’ “You've Got to Hide Your Love Away.”
“When he sang, it touched people,” Adolf says. “We’re sitting there. I was teary-eyed, just looking out over the audience. A lot of teary eyes in the audience. Not in a sad way, just an emotional way.”
Roberts adds, “It's hard to see your heroes go, and lately it seems like there are too many goodbyes. I'm so grateful to Daniel Johnston for his genius inspiration. Utmost love to him, wherever he may be.”