I want to claim Father John Misty as our own. No, not as a Canadian, but as a voice coming out of Generation X. An argument can be made for this as he is born in 1981, and depending on how you map it out, he could be a Gen. X’er rather than a Millennial.
Why is this important? I guess it really isn’t, but from my selfish point of view, I want bragging rights on Josh Tillman’s artistic vision, his sardonic wit, his world vision, and his cynicism. Either way, Josh Tillman has created an off hand brand, called Father John Misty, and is a badly needed light in todays barren musical landscape. He writes stories and narratives, poems and prose. He writes long winding sojourns into modern day society, lifting the veil back from the puke coloured concealment of todays state of ‘pure comedy’ found in the world. He’s sees the humour that is left behind from all the hopelessness. He attests to the failure of man. When all is laid bare, there is nothing left but laughter.
The slow ride of mans demise is palpable now, we can all collectively see the absurdness in how the “machine” works, being able to identify the corrupt nature of big business, and politics, the failure of humans to know better, but not to do better, the realization that the environment, religion, personal relationships, and the distracting numbness of the entertainment industry all are fugazi and fucked up beyond recognition. Clearly, as with Father John Misty’s well publicized on stage melt down in Candem N.J. in 2016, a day after the presidents inauguration. Here, FJM completed a monologue espousing the great sins that have lead America to elect a cartoon celebrity of a President. This rant was punctuated with a Leonard Cohen cover, and a 13 minute version of “Leaving L.A.”, from his brilliant record “Pure Comedy”. He reminded everyone that we need to “take a moment to be profoundly sad.” Largely, this was met by the audience with disdain. Even by directly pointing out the “numbing effect” that the entertainment industry has had on people- (call it the opiate of the masses, if you will)-, the audience made it clear that he was to “shut up and sing.” Truly, profoundly sad.
It’s not that i think the Millennial’s don’t deserve FJM, it’s more that he fits in with the cynicism and absurdness exemplified by the generation sandwiched between the ‘bloated, bustling ,and ultimately self absorbed failures’, called the Baby Boomers and the confusion of ‘what is the 21st century suppose to look like’, Millennial’s. If not by birth right, FJM fits in with the Gen. X’ers who wanted nothing to do with the “machine”. They held great disregard for material gain, and looked towards an entrepreneurial perspective and found a healthier life-work balance than most that came before or arrived later. Gen. X’ers got passed over, and that’s fine, because most of that generation saw the comedy and absurdity, and wanted nothing to do with it. Advertisers passed over Gen. X. as they couldn’t figure out how to sell to a bunch of cynics. Corporations and government employers passed over Gen. X. as the bloated numbers of Baby Boomers held onto their fiercely fought long climb to ‘middle management’. The entertainment industry tried to imbibe the voices of Gen. X. only to to blown away by the relative indifference of it’s strongest voices. The game was and is rigged, and Gen. X’er wanted little to do with it. Hence, the laughter.
So, as Father John Misty walked out on City Stage Saturday night, his volatility proceeded him. For those who have been on this ride, watching the as the ex-Fleet Foxes drummer engaged the world with solo records, and a trio of FJM records, there was a sense of “edge of your seat” tension. What were we going to get? Would it be an introspective folk show with a stripped down vibe, a collection of songs from his ever widening body of work, a lush orchestrated musical ride, or a freak out, and lose it on the audience, type of show.
What we got was an incredible ride through the better parts of “Pure Comedy”, a good smattering of his industry break out, “I love you, Honeybear”, and a touch of “Fear Fun”. The lead off four songs, “Pure Comedy”, "Total Entertainment Forever”, "Things it Would Have Been Helpful Before the Revolution”, and "Ballad of the Dying Man”, suggested a complete run through of his master work L.P., Pure Comedy. Alas, “Birdie” the next song on Pure Comedy was not to be played this night. What followed was a weaving back and forth song selection from his two previous records and a single called “Real Love Baby”. The impact of the first four songs set the mesmerizing tone for the night. The audience watched and listened with pin dropping silence and rapped attention. They were hanging on his words, being seduced by his lanky dance moves, the simple lighting, and the lush orchestrated sounds. T
he mid set rollicking “I’m Writing a Novel”, felt so much like a take on the self eulogizing and self mocking song “Ballad of John and Yoko”, and was a relief from the intensity of the set thus far. What we didn’t get in Ottawa, was the six strings and three horns sections that has been with him on every show of the tour up to then. As good as the show was, the addition of silky strings and horns would have been the cherry on top. This was compensated by some additional synths and keyboards, and in actuality, the overall effect of the lush orchestration of the songs were held together by the seven piece band.
Occasionally fitted with an acoustic guitar, FJM’s only prop of the night, was the lone microphone at the front of the stage. He is a charismatic showman posing with grand hand gestures, crossing of legs, and a twisting of limbs, all with a provocative nuance. Dropping to his knees, falling onto the stage, with a mocking tone of a religious fervour, it was almost too much to bare. He strutted, twirled his microphone, pranced and danced with an odd separation of the top and the bottom of his body. He showed off graceful Jaggeresque swagger but with loopy spindly legs. He is an enigma. His dancing is as above, as below, exposing that the seemingly contradictory forces are actually unified, similar to the idea that, within tragedy there is comedy.
It is near impossible to narrow down his stage presence, his voice, and his songwriting. We can see some of the Randy Newman and Harry Neilson biting sardonic lyrics played over smooth as velvet pop song melodies. A voice that at times seems part Elton John, part Jimmy James, and all FJM. A stage presence and delivery that is some where between Glenn Campbell’s simplicity, and the ferociousness an intellectualism of Nick Cave.
Josh was simply dressed in a dark blue thigh length jacket, with black pants soiled from the stage dust picked up when falling to his knees, and a button down black collared shirt, open to his mid chest, exposing just enough skin to be provocative. It is a look that is an everyday appearance for him, as if he had just walked off the street. Josh has recently re-bearded for the tour, a look that seemed to be mandatory as every member of the the 7 piece band had them. At one point, kneeling down at the edge of the stage he assured a young lady in the audience that any of the fine bearded men on stage could be a fine replacement for her bearded boyfriend, then reminded her that the boyfriend is the only one who matters, before continuing on with “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”. Seemingly self deprecating, FJM never lost the plot, and had little to say beyond “Thanks for being here”, and “drive home carefully”. On this long over due warm fall evening, the music did the talking. Any risk of appearing too clever, or court jester antics, were mitigated by his relative silence, and commitment to the songs.
Beside the horns and strings, the only thing on my list for a perfect FJM show would have been the addition of Jonathan Wilson. Wilson is presently touring with that Pink Floyd guy, Roger Waters. Jonathan Wilson had set up a recording studio that has seen the collaborative exploits of Chris Robinson, John Stirratt, Gary Louris, Mark Olson, David Rawlings, the Dawes, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Elvis Costello (among many others). Josh has been a regular presence there, and the Echo Park studio has hosted all of his FJM recordings. The two became fast friends, and are very close co conspirators on Pure Comedy. They are well on their way into creating a dynamic body of 21st Future Folk sounds filtered through the Laurel Canyon vibes.
Wilson, slightly older then Josh, is accredited with the Laurel Canyon revival and is featured in the “Canyon of Dreams” book by Harvey Kubernik. There is no doubt that the relationship between FJM and Jonathan Wilson has shaped the current sound and allowed FJM to experiment and put “play” and creativity as a central force in the music making. Certainly, the micro dosing of LSD by the pair helped shape a lot of Pure Comedy’s tone and content. Echo Park Studios has allowed them to spend hours in the studio pursuing sonic directions and lyrical gymnastics with out restrictions. The unique aesthetic and the decidedly singular sound of FJM owes a great deal to his co producer, and collaborator Jonathan Wilson. Pure Comedy was a little more planned out and structured than the earlier FJM recordings, actually using outside musicians instead of the two of them playing everything on the records. But the lasting imprint of Wilson and Tillman is unmistakeable.
Even though this is taken out of context, The Kris Kristofferson verse from The Pilgrim, Chapter 33, originally written about Harry Dean Stanton seems to echo some truth about Father John Misty…..
There were no strings. There were no horns. There was no Jonathan Wilson. There was a shortened set, down from an average 22 song performance to an intense 15 song show. Even with out all of these things, Father John Misty delivered a memorable show, leaving just enough room for his next Ottawa appearance to even be more mind blowing. The Future Folk Sound is here.
SET LIST CityFolk Festival Ottawa, September 16, 2017
Total Entertainment Forever
Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution
Ballad of the Dying Man
Nancy From Now On
Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)
When The God Of Love Returns There'll Be Hell To Pay
When You're Smiling and Astride Me
I'm Writing a Novel
Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
Real Love Baby
I Love You, Honeybear
I Went to the Store One Day