Father John Misty. Ellie Caulkins Opera House. 04.09.16
In the closing song on Father John Misty’s first album, Fear Fun, Joshua Michael Tillman comes close to explaining why he chose to use a pseudonym. “Joseph Campbell and The Rolling Stones couldn’t give me a myth, so I had to write my own,” he complains, before admitting to never liking the name his mother gave him anyway. He then goes on to say he was tired of the man who released a dozen albums and EPs as J. Tillman. Taking advantage of the success (and financial rewards) he gained from his time with Fleet Foxes, Tillman decided to stand up from the somber stool of acoustic despondency to get working on that myth. A steady diet of psilocybin mushrooms, some time of the road, and a change of scenery later, Father John Misty was born. As the song says, “every man needs a companion”, and with the Hollywood-bound son of a ladies’ man, Tillman found exactly who he needed. Father John Misty allowed him to uncover the humor in the hatred he had for almost everyone and everything around him, as well as bury any loathing he might have had for himself. Father John provided the unique perspective Tillman needed to augment his unique voice.
Father John also instilled Tillman with a level of confidence, affording him the ability to voice his opinions to (and contempt for) all the boring people in the word. With that confidence came swagger and sex appeal, and with that swagger and sex appeal came the heart of Emma Elizabeth. So what happens when a mythical character falls in love with a real-life woman? Well, in this case, marriage happened. And after marriage came I Love You, Honeybear. One of the most honestly heartfelt, but graphically cynical albums to ever come into existence, the songs contained within that record blur the lines between Tillman and his made-up companion; leaving you to wonder if they really are one and same. Paranoid, jealous, selfish, critical, and extremely naïve, but also fully, completely, and blindly in love (with himself as much as his wife), the physical manifestation of the man from the Father John Misty albums took the stage in an unbuttoned polka-dot shirt, black blazer, long hair, and shaggy beard. Backed by a five-piece band and a female backup singer, he was met with thunderous applause by a house literally packed to the rafters. Church was in session and Father John was on a mission to entertain.
After an extremely creepy intro with gurgled vocals over the PA and a stage bathed in blood red, the show opened with the aforementioned “Everyman Needs a Companion”. A crowd, still stunned by the sword-wielding duo Tess & Dave, were a little slow getting to their feet, but when Tillman suggested everyone stand, that’s just what they did. It was almost dizzying to look up at the rows of fans stacked above us in the opera house. It was immediately evident the show would be much different than the solo, acoustic one I saw at the Bluebird Theater in 2012. As the swirling lights came to a halt, and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” was performed by mere shadows, there was a level of professionalism that was absent at that last show. It went beyond just production value; the superior sound was one thing, but the way he held himself was most impressive. The first half of the set was heavy on Fear Fun material (the same songs he performed four years ago) but this time the songs were able to breathe because they weren’t drown in the obnoxious, condescending banter we were subjugated to when he opened for Youth Lagoon. The Father John Misty persona was still in full effect as he danced around like a lounge lizard, before falling to his knees during “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”, but he played the part with real purpose and he was able to do so without hurling insults at the crowd.
“He is sex in a suit jacket and you can quote me on that!” My wife doesn’t usually talk much during a concert. She’s usually telling me to shut up when I’m trying to explain some lyric or share some anecdote with her during a performance. She couldn’t help herself during “Only Son of the Ladiesman” though. She wanted me to knew she was picking up what he was laying down. She wasn’t the only one. Whether he had the audience swaying back and forth while he was crooning like Ol’ Blue Eyes with a drink in his hand, or snapping their fingers and popping their hips as he strutted his shit like Iggy Pop, the man and the myth infected everyone in the room with a sort of manic energy, only to receive it back tenfold. “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” was a perfect example of letting that energy resonate during the mild, bluesy intro, only to release it in a fit of vocal and riff-soaked rage. You had to feel sorry for the sad sap who was the object of his scorn on that particular track. I’m pretty sure he’d lost the suit jacket by the time he was warning Hollywood of his arrival, but apparently his sex appeal wasn’t tied to it. Girls in the front row (with hands always reaching out for contact) still resembled those at Beatles concerts during the British Invasion…even if he resembled Morrison much more than he did Lennon.
As the performance continued, each song came with its own aesthetic and arena-sized lightshow. The band acted as a cohesive unit that stayed in lockstep with Tillman’s every move, no matter how random or off the cuff those moves may have been. Father John Misty would strike a Bon Jovi worthy pose one minute, only to come down into the crowd like a humble servant of the people the next. His stage banter was remarkable in how unremarkable it was. In fact, he didn’t say a word to the crowd until over halfway through the set when he claimed a presidential candidate asked permission to use “Bored in the USA” in their campaign. He denied permission for the reasons stated in “Holy Shit”. The hostility and friction between artist and audience I experienced at the Bluebird was almost completely absent, but the couple times it did come through (like when someone put a hat on his head, only to have it thrown off in disgust), it was lighthearted and funny. Some will argue the same for the Bluebird show, but I just didn’t get that feeling. The set ended with “I Love You, Honeybear”, but not before he took the time to “thank y’all very much for coming.”
Father John Misty/Joshua Tillman was only gone for a couple minutes before the encore, but it gave me time to wonder what his next persona might be. Is Father John here to stay? Or depending on where Tillman’s life takes him, will he need to conjure another companion to hold his hand through this thing called life? He was back before I could explore those thoughts further. Performing “I Went to the Store One Day”, solo and acoustic, it was easy to see the person his wife fell in love with, but as “Because the Night” (dedicated to his bassist because it was his motherfucking birthday) became “The Ideal Husband”, I had to wonder if she would be strong enough to be married to two different men. As he was writhing on the ground, losing his shit while literally screaming about putting “a baby in the oven,” it made me question whether anyone could be capable of receiving his brand of ‘love’. I guess only time will tell, but in the meantime we are all seriously indebted to Emma Elizabeth Tillman. Without her, we wouldn’t have the amazing songs on I Love You, Honeybear, but we also wouldn’t be able to experience her husband’s newly found stage presence. Having seen him before and after, I can attest to the fact that he has grown leaps and bounds as a performer ever since he took that fated trip to the store that day.
Everyman Needs a Companion
Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
When You’re Smiling and Astride Me
Only Son of the Ladiesman
Tee Pees 1-12
Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow
Funtimes in Babylon
Nancy From Now On
Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)
I’m Writing a Novel
Now I’m Learning to Love the War
Bored in the USA
This is Sally Hatchet
I Love You, Honeybear
I Went to the Store One Day
Because the Night
The Ideal Husband