“In the New Age we’ll all be entertained/rich or poor, the channels are all the same.”
“In the New Age we’ll all be entertained/rich or poor, the channels are all the same.” (SPENCER DUKOFF/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
To watch Josh Tillman perform is simultaneously compelling and exhausting.
Tillman, who makes sardonic indie rock as Father John Misty, is one of the most-blogged-about individuals on the internet. “Polarizing” is the cliché most often used to describe his reputation.
But as Tillman took the stage Wednesday night at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn for a sold-out stop on his world tour, the crowd seemed more than happy to play the part of rapt congregation to Father John’s hip-shaking preacher.
The show opened with the title track off the new record, and then six more new songs in a row, a bold choice for any performer to make.
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If Father John Misty’s first album focused on the transition of earnest folkie J. Tillman into shamanic rocker Father John, and the second chronicled a cynic falling deeply in love, “Pure Comedy” is about utter hopelessness and coming to terms with the identity that Tillman has constructed.
Adding to risk of playing six new songs to kick off the concert was the comfortable seating at the newly restored, ornate Kings Theatre.
That’s because Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy” tour is not a rock concert — it’s theater.
Flanked by a full band that included an eight-piece strings section and horn player, Tillman was able to deliver sonic moments that matched, and several times surpassed, the depth of the record.
The soaring crescendo of “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” was thrilling, made even more cinematic by an immersive light show that didn’t shy away from totally tripping you out with a relentless strobe.
If you closed your eyes during any one of the first seven songs, you were totally transported.
But if you opened your eyes and trained them on Tillman, as the blinding spotlight he often occupied dictated you do, things got a little more complicated.
But sitting for the suite of “Pure Comedy” songs felt right, and the audience didn’t seem to want to challenge the silent pact they had made to remain seated.
Tillman was prone to flitting around on stage with a zero-effort Mick Jagger spasm accompanied by hit-you-over-the-head lyrical pantomimes. Nothing about his physical performance was subtle.
When he sang “Every monster has a code/one that steadies the shaking hand” during “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” he vigorously shaked his hand ... like a monster.
When he shouted “my Lord!” in that same song, he bent backwards, stared at the ceiling and pointed at the sky. You know, where the Lord lives.
And during songs where Tillman was sans guitar, he fidgeted between too-cool-for-school poses that seemed more like a parody of a rock singer than an actual rock singer.
The fact Tillman seemed in on the joke one moment and deadly serious the next was disorienting.
In between each of the first seven songs were scant cheers or whoops, replaced by the hushed whispers of a Broadway crowd. Whether the audience was enthralled or on edge was difficult to discern.
But Tillman gamely released the tension with an actual joke.
“Can you imagine seeing a Prohibition-era ‘Avengers’ movie in this place?” he deadpanned.
With that, the band launched into “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” off album No. 2, “I Love You, Honeybear,” and the entire crowd rose to its feet.
With the audience finally standing, Tillman dropped to his knees, because of course he did.
Strings added so much to “Strange Encounter,” and “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Cow” delivered peak Misty rage-face, as Tillman stopped singing toward the end and started barking the lyrics instead.
During a somewhat awkward interlude where a guitar tech gave Tillman the wrong guitar, the singer played up the moment for effect.
“I hope these are yelps of joy and not anxiety,” he said. “I will just stand here. I will amuse you with my sheer presence.”
“Funtimes in Babylon” and “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” were the biggest sing-alongs of the night, and both highlighted the emotional distance between the first two records and the third.
The five-song encore was undeniably the high point of the evening, which started with the never-more-poignant “Bored in the USA.”
With that, Tillman instructed the audience to sit for “The Memo,” “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain,” and “In Twenty Years or So,” three of the darkest cuts off “Pure Comedy.”
Again, it was a risk to play these lesser-beloved songs so late in the evening, especially to a freshly seated crowd.
Why did it work? For the first time all night, Tillman seemed to drop the act.
When he sang “no one ever knows the real you and life is brief” during set-closer “Holy S--t,” you empathized.
He’d finally shed all the winks and nods and affectations, and that sincerity was captivating.
It felt as if the artist had deconstructed his persona in real time.
All the irony was finally wrung out of him.
Total Entertainment Forever
Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution
Ballad of the Dying Man
A Bigger Paper Bag
When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay
When You’re Smiling and Astride Me
Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow
Funtimes in Babylon
Nancy From Now On
Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)
Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
I Love You, Honeybear
Bored in the USA
So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain
In Twenty Years or So