Father John Misty let his songs speak for themselves during a ‘70s-redolent show at Surly Brewing Festival Field on Saturday.
Josh Tillman, the man behind the beard and the shades and the attention-grabbing interviews, seems to know he’s at a peak. He put on a show just a hair smaller than a mainstream star’s. His band included a small chamber orchestra, and everyone on stage wore suits. The ugly little people from his dense Pure Comedy artwork crawled across a projector screen behind the band. The set’s swirling instrumentation conjured a time when socially conscious, densely arranged folk-rock was tentpole of the music landscape.
Of course, the postmodern hook of Tillman’s music under the Misty name is that it always lampoons the indie-folk conventions it simultaneously exemplifies, which lent a certain tension to his performance.
This year’s Pure Comedy is likely the biggest album Father John Misty will ever release, in terms of both its ambition and his visibility. It’s an impressive achievement, but one that makes the whole of human civilization the butt of some pretty dark jokes. Tillman is smart enough to let some compassion peek through at strategic points, but there’s still something surreal about hearing the misanthropy and condescension of the title track played at an outdoor event with food trucks, backlit by a beautiful, warm, late-summer twilight.
Tillman seemed to acknowledge that strangeness with some oblique humor. He inserted a spoken word monologue into “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” his lyrics’ narrator requesting of his lover that, instead of drinking their usual white wine, they take a trip “down to the brewery,” where they would be able to not only drink beer, but also see a performer who sounded an awful lot like Father John Misty.
“They’ll have varietals of beer that are light, that are not hoppy, that are unpretentious,” he said. “We are going to see what is maybe the strangest man that the internet has ever produced, and we are going to see him sing about his thoughts, and his feelings, down at the brewery, my love.”
The set was frontloaded with a selection of Pure Comedy cuts before proceeding through songs from his other two albums, 2015’s love-and-sex-themed masterpiece I Love You, Honeybear and 2012’s dry-run-with-some-good-songs Fear Fun, as well as “Real Love Baby,” the effortless folk-pop gem he dropped as a standalone track in 2016. The overall arc of the set felt redemptive, leading from the new album’s almost nihilistic mansplaining of societal ills through songs of love-against-the-odds and acid-fried hedonism before crash-landing on the epic “Leaving L.A.” and a raucous “Ideal Husband.”
Both of FJM’s two most recent albums showcase a master songwriter pushing himself further and further. Whether you like or loathe the way he uses his talent—writing virtuosic, witty songs that are always as much about themselves as they are about the universal themes they typically address—it’s hard to deny his facility with language, or his confident hand with structure and arrangement. His performance at Surly confirmed that in addition to being a great songwriter, he’s a great showman. He dances! (Mostly ironically, but still, pretty well.) His voice is just as honeyed live, and his band is subtly red-hot. His bassist plays with a pick, nailing the chunky, loping lines often deployed by late ‘60s studio bands. The strings ensured his lush arrangements were just as they sound on record, with a bit of the grandeur of Scott Walker or Randy Newman. The part where the band drops in on “Pure Comedy” is killer; the only thing missing is a kick line.
Misty’s set wasn’t all retro: The circa-2004 Postal Service-sounding curveball “True Affection,” a standout from I Love You, Honeybear, was a shimmering, cavernous stadium electro-pop showstopper. It’s one of the few FJM songs that’s vulnerable straight through, which means its stands out against the layered irony of the rest.
A giant heart appeared on the projector screen behind Tillman during “True Affection,” where a few songs previously a view of planet Earth from space had shown up. The latter graphic seems to emphasize distance, like we were observing the world from the outside with Tillman, but the former seems to emphasize closeness, human connection. Those sentiments are always hard-won in Misty’s music, and more striking for it.
Choice banter: “I don’t particularly have any observations or anything to say at this time,” Tillman deadpanned during the first break he took to banter between songs.
Minnesota connection: Our very own Har Mar Superstar (aka Sean Tillmann [no relation]) came on stage before the encore to deliver a toast, slurring his speech a little, later planting a kiss on FJM too.
“He’s my Midwestern friend,” Tillman said after Tillmann left the stage. “This man has character.”
There’s some added context here: Saturday morning, before the show, Tillman’s fellow big-mouthed folk-rocker Ryan Adams randomly insulted Father John Misty in a series of tweets, at one point (awesomely but incorrectly—see Randy Newman comparison, above) calling him “Elton Josh.” Who jumped to Tillman’s defense on Twitter? Har Mar, in a disarming display of Minnesota nice.
Note about the opener: I was almost as interested in seeing Tennis as FJM. Their 2012 sophomore album, Young & Old, is in my personal canon for its mix of taut drumming and gorgeous vocal melodies.
They deepened the ‘70s vibe of the show with their AM radio-ready classicist pop, which contained hints of girl groups, Fleetwood Mac, disco, and yacht rock. Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, the married couple at the core of the group, were decked out respectively in a brown, backless top with striped bellbottoms and glitter covered platform shoes, and washed out blue jeans and a vintage-looking Late Show with David Letterman t-shirt. The drums were muted with handkerchiefs, and Moore’s electric piano was wood paneled, like the inside of an old station wagon.
Critic’s bias: Pure Comedy is a really impressive piece of work, but I Love You, Honeybear is still Father John Misty’s classic, at least to my ears.
The crowd: There was an unusually comfortable amount of space between the bodies, even toward the front of the crowd, which I attribute to the even greater-than-normal number of concertgoers holding beers. Thanks, Surly!
Total Entertainment Forever
Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution
Ballad of the Dying Man
When You're Smiling and Astride Me
Nancy From Now On
Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)
Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow
When the God of Love Returns There'll Be Hell to Pay
A Bigger Paper Bag
Bored in the USA
Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
Real Love Baby
I Love You, Honeybear
The Ideal Husband