Josh Tillman, an indie folk rock singer-songwriter performing under the moniker “Father John Misty,” is a pretty polarizing figure. A subject of devout idolatry to some and discarded “hipster trash” to others, the eccentric provocateur has a history of attracting intense listener feedback. When listening to his offbeat ballads through headphones or watching him rant about our toxic entertainment culture on YouTube, it’s difficult to ascertain the sincerity of his sentiments. Seeing him perform live, though, it’s impossible to doubt his authenticity. At Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay on Wednesday night, Misty was commanding, charming and uninhibited, proving himself to be a true original with innate showmanship to boot.
Misty opened with “Pure Comedy,” the title track off his brand new album that tells the tragic, absurd tale of humanity, from its ill-fated birth to its bitter demise. Fog permeated the entire stage, and he solemnly approached the microphone with his hands in the pockets of a black knee-length coat.
The audience members were his eager disciples: They absorbed his denunciations of everything from political corruption to religion to prescription drug dependency with reverence and hollered their approval when Misty crooned about “sacred texts written by woman-hating epileptics.” The slow-building chord progression swelled and finally gave way to an instrumental break that Misty welcomed with open arms, erupting into a frolicsome, undulating groove-dance. Snapping his fingers and pursing his lips, gyrating and whole-body-rocking, he appeared totally free while managing to maintain a captivating regality under blue lights.
The foreboding “Total Entertainment Forever” got the audience dancing and singing along before Misty cast a somber spell during a fervid rendition of “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution.” In “Birdie,” the eerie dissonance and cadences of his unaffected vocals offset the song’s underlying optimism as Misty leaned heavily against a mic stand that looked dangerously close to slipping out from underneath him.
“I Love You, Honeybear” featured pulsing red lights, an unleashed and impressively limber Misty sinking to his knees and tenderly petting the head of a first-row fan and smooth, clear vocals. A highlight of the night occurred when Misty finally indulged fans that had been screaming out for “Nancy!” and played fan-favorite “Nancy from Now On.” Marked by his music’s signature duality of danceable instrumentation and lamentable lyrics, the song aroused vocal and physical audience participation. Misty tucked a pink flower behind his ear and swayed freely as he recounted his grim misfortunes.
Vocally, Misty performed even better than on his albums: His pitch was impeccable throughout and his sound was completely pure. Transitions were aided by a stagehand that swiftly changed Misty’s guitars between songs, and the set flowed smoothly, apart from one grandiose, albeit unorthodox, fan offering.
Just after the audience had fallen silent in preparation for the reflective, “I Went to the Store One Day,” chaos ensued. An inebriated concertgoer came barreling through the audience to publicly relieve himself, provoking cries of shock and outrage. With an elevated and unobstructed view of the situation, Father John Misty stopped playing and calmly requested security before diagnosing the case as “ecstasy, best case scenario.” He then reeled in a still buzzing audience and restarted the song, delivering a touching ode to the birth of his great romance with featherlight vocals and gentle fingerpicking.
Misty’s oscillations between satire and sincerity constitute the basis of his appeal and individuality as an artist. His comedic idiosyncrasies and self-indulgent flamboyance on stage carried no traces of phoniness and complimented his heavy subject matter naturally. Father John Misty is not the first artist to inform us of the world’s fatal problems or that the human race is self-destructive, but his unique amalgamation of irony, narrative, earnestness, self-deprecation and buttery-smooth vocals is a potent one.
Misty closed with his hit “Real Love Baby.” He defended the crowd-pleasing, pop-infused schmaltz with a cryptic explanation: “The meaning behind this song is actually not quite what you think … it’s far weirder.” With intrigue hanging in the air, he and his audience proceeded to softly rock to a tune that, like the man himself, is undeniably enchanting and, apparently, much more than meets the eye.
Date: April 12, 2017
Location: Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay
Image Courtesy of Pitchfork