The last day of Cornerstone '97 has arrived, and on the afternoon concert stage is a twenty-foot-high tree made out of tarp and other materials. The tree reaches almost to the top of the tent and spreads out over a third or more of the stage area with various plastic fruit swinging from strings tied to the green cloud of tarp that is the leafy top of this massive prop. Danielson Family is certainly one of Christian music's most eccentric bands, and I'm sure they have a surprise cooked up under that tree. Or as it turns out inside of that tree.
I became interested in the budding Danielson Family at Cornerstone '96 when I happened into a concert where a young male singer was squeaking with an unplugged sound that was both unusual and intriguing. All six or seven people on stage, some of them kids, were dressed in newly-sewn, hospital-white outfits, and the girls had on nurse's hats. The white medical shirts had everyone's name on the chest and a red heart on the sleeve.
The band actually is mostly family. There is Andrew, the youngest, now thirteen, on percussion; and David, seventeen, at the drums. Two sisters, Megan and Rachel, both twenty, handle the backing vocals, vibes, and other incidental instrumentation. Chris and another David, both twenty-five, are honorary family members on keyboards and bass. Daniel Smith, now twenty-five, was the young man at the mike with the curious vocal style and acoustic guitar. His music is an acquired taste that I have won. The vocals remind me of Perry Farrell of Porno for Pyros blended with Mickey Mouse. The musical style is extremely alternative in the truest sense of that word. Acoustic-folk-jazz with rock and roll underpinnings might work for a description. The songs are well-crafted and emotionally striking. Effective dulcet tones and minor keys stir and flow beneath Daniel's word images.
This year, about two months before Cornerstone, I went to see Daniel Smith and Danielson in a little Christian club near me called "the Cave" and asked him if I could do a Cornerstone interview with him. After a good concert and some conversation there, Daniel agreed to the interview. When I caught up with him at Cornerstone, we rode up to my camp on a golf cart, where I thought it would be nice and quiet. On the ride there he told me he was feeling sick and had forgotten to bring a jacket to camp, and it was chilly. Danielson was supposed to play the indoor stage in two days, so he would have to feel better soon. When we got to my campsite, there was a sound check going on at a nearby stage, and it was not at all quiet! So here I was at my picnic table with a sick, cold (in fact, shivering cold) Daniel Smith and I would have to practically yell at him to be heard. But, being the dedicated PT reporter that I am, I pressed on at the expense of this sensitive artist's health. : )
We talked about his early years and how Danielson got started. Daniel told me about the family's first performance being part of his college senior thesis. His major being arts not music, he had to slip in the music as part of his overall art's theme along with some other art work. He had a quilt that was the shape and size of a car that his dad and he had bought while he was in college. His thesis was actually about how he came to embrace his family's faith as his own. Daniel still does all the art work for Danielson.
Before Daniel was writing acoustic songs, he and a friend were dreaming big dreams and doing electric noise music. "We would set up there in South Jersey, which is very behind the times in comparison to Philadelphia, and that made us mad. So we'd play all this experimental music. People would threaten to beat us up at the gigs, but that's the response we were looking for. We were very immature."
During his college experience, he became interested in acoustic songwriting "that's bare bones, where there's nothing to hide behind." He and the family went to work in '94 recording the songs he had written through college, with all twelve songs on the first album done on his four-track tape recorder. But then the Lord began to work in Daniel's heart, and young Mr. Smith decided to put away all his musical hopes and dreams and spend some time contemplating God's lordship in his life. He ended up going to Jesus People U.S.A. in Chicago where he washed dishes and cleaned toilets for six months while he prayed about his musical ambitions. He told me this was a wonderful time, and he ended up with a second family there.
Eventually the Lord let him know that He would use him in the musical field, and Daniel began to send out his demo tape. "That was the beginning of what I call the 'Danielson Blessing'. Once I had given all my plans up and became ok with it not working out, about a couple of weeks later I heard the Lord say, 'ok, I want you to send the tapes out now.' So I sent them to a handful of labels." As the responses and replies came in, Danielson went to Tooth and Nail records. They wanted Danielson, and they wanted to put out the first album just as the family had recorded it at home.
"It was real clear that the Lord wanted me to go with Tooth and Nail. Even though I didn't know why then; I know why now. They have a burden to take the music to the lost, and it's happened. And I've heard the criticisms of Tooth and Nail (that they've turned into a secular label now and are only in the market place for the money, not the ministry), but my first album broke even and then they turned around and wanted to sign me for three more albums. That's the worst business move I've ever heard and yet they did it. How do you criticize that? Especially after all the flak they heard about signing me. 'Danielson is the reason Christian music has a bad name.' That's a quote from one of my favorite reviews, simply talking about the music. A lot of people have a lot to say, but the music is reaching the lost. We have a bigger fan base among the lost than we do in the Christian area, much bigger. We play mostly night clubs. The fruit that we've seen inside the bars is fantastic--people just opening up and approaching us with open arms wanting us to speak to them; its unbelievable. We get criticized for that all the time, that we shouldn't be playing in bars; but I choose to listen to the Holy Spirit and what he's made very clear."
Daniel uses an unusual word to illustrate his music so I asked him to explain his term "vulnerary music" to me. He said, "This goes back to the response we've seen; this is healing music. That's what the word 'vulnerary' means: pertaining to healing wounds. And I share that at our shows. When people say that they love what we're doing, I try to make it clear that what they're reacting to, as far as what is behind the song, is the Lord. You really have to go to a show and see it. And in the bars is the best way to see it; because where the dark is, the light shines so much brighter. See, I believe that that's where Christians should be, seeing what the Lord is doing there, too. I don't think it should be like it is now, with non-Christians over here and Christians over there, and we have to do shows for each. I think the Christians should be going to bars and seeing what the Lord is doing--talk about getting encouraged! People are being set free! On different levels of course, even if it's just destroying all preconceived notions about the Lord. That's the beginning to the greatest healing there is."
We then started to talk about Cornerstone Festival. He recalled his first Cornerstone was two years ago in '95. He had just signed with Tooth and Nail and was finishing up his time at JPUSA when he came to the Festival and played on the impromptu stage with two of his friends. The impromptu stage is where bands come and sign up to play that may not have record deals or even future plans of getting one. The next year he fulfilled his dream and brought his family to Cornerstone for the premiere of Danielson.
"I like Cornerstone a lot. Although it's really overwhelming." Then he confessed, "I have a hard time with a lot of the business, but apparently that's part of the whole scene. What bothers me is the merchandising. Part of it's healthy, of course, but it's gotten out of hand. I'm sure nobody will argue with that. I sell T-shirts, too; I gotta eat, I've gotta pay for gas home. I think it's just the spirit of the big exhibition tent that I have a hard time with. The people are where it's at. I make my living as a carpenter. I work with my dad and cousin to try and break even. Then I go out on tour and start it again. The Lord knows if I had too much money right now I'd probably be a mess. He knows where I'm weak."
Then I asked the question burning in my co-publisher's mind, "Do you practice?" After a short pause he responded, "That's funny 'cause someone else said to me, 'I heard you guys never practice.' Yeah, we practice, sometimes. But we don't need to practice very much, in my opinion. It's in the blood; I really believe that there's a family connection. We'll practice quite a bit before we record the new album this summer, and we should get one practice in before the concert on Sunday. My family is made up of good musicians; my brothers are real good drummers. On tour it's just whoever can come, but it's tight."
About this time I could see Daniel was ready to find a warmer spot to sit and recuperate from whatever was ailing him. As we wrapped it up, he talked about the concert and that he had a lot on his mind because there would be some new songs and some new visuals displayed for the first time. "A new facet of Danielson," he called it. He also noted that I hadn't asked him why he sings the way he does. I inquired if I should. He said, "Nah, I'm just kidding. I don't want to answer that, anyway. That's the stupidest question ever."
The big show came on Sunday afternoon, the last day of the Festival, and the stage was set with the huge tree that I think Daniel made himself. A guitar hung on the outside of the tree about half way down the trunk. Danielson came out to take the stage but not all of them. Daniel, his sisters, and JD and Chris (two of Daniel's band mates) took their place behind their instruments while Daniel walked up to and then inside the tree. Quickly he put his face out of one hole in the trunk and his arms out of two more holes to reach the guitar. There it was; the Danielson Family Tree and Daniel singing and playing from the thick trunk of it. A genuine Cornerstone moment! After a few songs from the tree, he came out of it and the stage was de-treed. The rest of the family came out and played an impressive set from the two albums of songs so far on Tooth and Nail records.
I've always maintained that you've got to be good musicians to pull off what Danielson does, and they proved me right with the last song--a twelve minute opus, with additional musicians coming on to add guitar, flute, violin, and trumpet. The deceptively sophisticated, improvisational music was reminiscent of Frank Zappa's earlier non-commercial days.
In the press tent after the show, someone asked Daniel what the significance of the tree was and he replied, "I was up there bearing the good fruit!"
Copyright© 1997 The Phantom Tollbooth