Regardless of where one stands on the polarizing spectrum of Father John Misty appreciation, one objective fact is that the man also known as Josh Tillman has done a masterful job of positioning himself as one of the indie rock community’s foremost figures—love him or hate him, he’s become a star.
To some, the singer-songwriter (a former session musician and drummer for Fleet Foxes, who has also contributed with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga) is a master provocateur, a lyricist with an essential voice and perspective for today’s so often self-serious age. To others, he might come across as pretentious, selling his persona and eccentricities as a gimmick.
It didn’t matter where you fell along the spectrum, however, on Wednesday night at the legendary and gorgeous Kings Theatre in Flatbush, as Tillman—if only for the lengthy duration of his impressive stage show— transcended that debate. For this show, at this venue, for this crowd, the stance on the aforementioned conundrum fell by the wayside, because something else was evident: beneath all the jokes and persona isn’t just a goofball, but an insanely-talented vocalist and, in a larger sense, musician. Most importantly, though, Father John Misty has developed himself into an incredibly engaging performer, with an extensive and rangy live band, and an intense energy that is put on front-and-center display throughout the set’s run time.
As he performed his 21-song set, Tillman, with the recognizable scruff of his beard returning to his face after he removed it in the fall, spent portions of the show strumming a number of different guitars, swinging said guitars to his side, and passionately dancing during music breaks within the songs. Clad in jeans, a white button down shirt, and a black suit jacket that magically seemed to alternate between being on and off, there was relatively little banter during the music-heavy set—a bit of a surprise for a performer whose act is so centered on his sardonic wit.
But that’s not to say that wit was absent. During set-opener “Pure Comedy,” also the starting point for the new album of the same name, Tillman sings about a number of perceived ironic happenings. ”The comedy of man starts like this,” he begins. “Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips.” Clearly, the man is being facetious; do you even need to add mid-set witty banter with lyrics like that?
But even in just natural lulls, it happens. “Can you imagine seeing a prohibition-era Avengers movie in this place?” he asked as his first non-sung words of the night, looking around at the undeniable grandiosity of the Kings Theatre, with golden crown moldings lining the ceiling hundreds of feet above our heads. But it was right back to business from there. “OK, well, lets carry on,” he said. “This is great.”
And on the show went. After starting with a nice block of songs off Pure Comedy, he slipped into a set that included favorites from his first two albums, Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear. With lights that gyrated as much as his own dancing, the show never slowed, and a massive, sold-out crowd that began the show seated—only due to the concert hall nature of the Kings Theatre setup—was entirely on its feet by the show’s end (and middle, for that matter).
Throughout the set’s 16 initial songs, and into its five-song encore, Tillman made great use of his live band, which from my layman’s estimation was made up of seven immediately-surrounding musicians, plus an additional string section in the back. It wasn’t hard to distinguish crowd favorites—one that stuck out (probably because it was the first Father John Misty song I ever heard) was the late-set inclusion of “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”. It made use of the entire band, and its status as an old favorite immediately caught attention—it was recognized from the opening riff, and the song’s hook (“Jeeeeesus Christ, girl. What are people gonna think?”) sounded like a chorus sing-along.
There’s a lot to unpack with Father John Misty, and it’s certainly not difficult to see how he could not be someone’s exact cup of tea (for what it’s worth, I went to the show and stayed up to all hours afterwards writing this piece, so it’s clear where I stand). But during the show, the behavior I saw led me to suspect something else—the persona that we see in interviews and through the FJM lyrics is just that: a persona. Josh Tillman, repeatedly, thanked the crowd for coming out, and being great. He didn’t babble. He wasn’t snide. He wasn’t cocky. He was just good, and loud, and fun. And most importantly, the music matched that mood.