Led by singer-songwriter Josh Tillman, Indie-folk group Father John Misty played the second and final night of its sold-out stay at U Street’s Lincoln Theater on April 26. From the start, it was clear the group was no longer touring solely in support of its latest album — 2015’s sophomore studio effort “I Love You, Honeybear.” The show featured a set that gave equal favor to selections from its 2012 debut album “Fear Fun.” Having made it past the proverbial break, no longer having to fight the tide of obscurity, Father John Misty has enjoyed widespread success and critical acclaim from outlets including The New York Times, NME and Pitchfork, among others.
Father John Misty is the admittedly arbitrary stage name for the reincarnation of the lead singer and rhythm guitarist, Josh Tillman. A music industry veteran, he has released a steady stream of albums since 2004, both as a solo act and with numerous Pacific Northwest indie-rock acts. He gained international notoriety during his five-year tenure as drummer of the indie-folk group Fleet Foxes. Following his departure from the group, he signed with record label Sub Pop and took on the moniker Father John Misty in hopes of leaving behind all associations to his prior identity as solo artist J. Tillman.
Representing a much more refined level of production, directed lyrical theme and diverse sonic array than Misty produced three years prior, “I Love You, Honeybear” sees the group realize its potential in this personal concept album. This evolution has evidently been translated directly into its live shows. Having matured from small venues and a minimalist aesthetic into a seven-piece ensemble accompanied by a precisely synchronized light show at some of the most iconic venues nationwide, Father John Misty has made it.
The evening’s set kicked off with “Everyman Needs a Companion.” This tender song from 2012 was the perfect way to introduce the acoustic-driven act and served as an important link between the scattered musings of “Fear Fun” and the romance-themed “I Love You, Honeybear.” Tillman held the audience in a trancelike captivity as he eased into a diverse set that highlighted his incredible vocal, thematic and stylistic range.
The moment was shattered, however, by abrupt, overdriven opening chords of one of Tillman’s most popular songs, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” Also from “Fear Fun,” the song was one of the first singles released by Misty and helped to drive its early popularity. The accompanying music video, which featured “Parks and Recreation” star Aubrey Plaza, also garnered widespread attention. Tillman, silhouetted against a red backlight, matched the high energy of the accompaniment by writhing on the floor as the song drew to a close.
Sandwiched midway through the set, “Nancy From Now On” exemplified the sonic evolution and polish of the group since its earlier days. The folk melody took on a dream-pop sound as the band played awash in a soft green glow. Tillman’s vocals had lost their gruff tendency, and were incredibly smooth.
“I’m Writing a Novel” was a welcome return to vintage Father John Misty as the band launched into the straightforward bluegrass-inspired tune. When the lights rose to bring the band forth from the darkness into clear view, Tillman sang the first verse, “I ran down the road, pants down to my knees / Screaming ‘please come help me, that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!’ / And I’m writing a novel because it’s never been done before.” The themes of drug-induced hallucinations, experiences with past lovers and eccentric musings typify Tillman’s lyrical approach.
Fans could hardly contain their excitement as the group launched into the title track of its latest album. The calls to “play Honeybear” were finally answered as the show drew to a close. While Tillman took a moment to explain to the audience that he was fighting the flu — and therefore lacked the vocal dexterity on which he prides himself — the performance was hardly diminished. Directed toward his wife, photographer Emma Elizabeth Tillman, the song contrasts more common expressions of love — “My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with” — with Tillman’s own romantic fantasy — “Unless we’re naked getting high on the mattress / While the global market crashes / As death fills the streets we’re garden-variety oblivious.”
The three-song encore featured the night’s quietest moment, a solo acoustic fingerpicked performance of “I Went To The Store One Day.” This genuinely heartfelt piece was followed by the blaring intro of “The Ideal Husband,” a high-energy song featuring an air raid siren at the beginning and a raucous fuzz-tone outro. The encore’s defining moment however, was the surprising cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” identified by Tillman as his favorite love song. Unsurprisingly, the performance was neither sappy nor cliche, featuring the chorus “I want to f— you like an animal.”
In sum, the show displayed an incredible polish absent from the group’s previous tours. While the show maintained some of Tillman’s eccentricities, it lost some of the uniqueness of a Misty concert. While the music was performed flawlessly and with increased orchestration, due to the addition of new band members, it felt less raw and more staged. Despite this, the show was an incredible experience: a journey into Tillman’s mind with the audience of a historic theater at his command. Tillman not only inspired cheers, but deep laughter and empathy for the familiar situations he gives voice to in his songs.
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