Unlocking the Spirit: Father John Misty Live at Stubb’s

Father_John_Misty_042415-9Who knew the wonders of the human spirit that would be unleashed by a months-long psychedelics binge outside of L.A.? After Josh Tillman left behind a lengthy series of somber, experimental folk songs along with a career in hit band Fleet Foxes, and holed up in Laurel Canyon for months on end with some hallucinogens, he transformed into Father John Misty to create one of the best records released in years, Fear Fun, an impressive blend of psychedelic rock and country that wryly criticized myriad facets of modern culture. Tillman let go of dark folk songs and unveiled to the world an unhinged genius cackling maniacally as he lamented some of this modern era’s most depressing truths. But Tillman’s metamorphosis was not yet complete.

Father_John_Misty_042415-10Somewhere along the way he unlocked a portion of himself able to commit entirely to another human being. He fell in love with and married his now-wife Emma. Of course, this isn’t a fairy tale, and Tillman accessed his personal experience to render a dark, hilarious, and astute portrayal of all the messiness, terror, and joy of falling in love in this post-nuclear America. There was a time when an active decision for permanent singlehood might have been seen as a choice to remain a cultural outsider, but now, true lovers constitute our greatest social outlaws. Love is confusing and intimidating and transcendent, and Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear captures it all. (Full disclosure: I’m getting married this Saturday.)

Father_John_Misty_042415-7In accessing his gallows humor, cultural criticism, and wondrous capacity to share intimacy with another human being, Tillman also converted his live show from a guy hunched in the shadows, half-whispering songs (some of which were inarguably great) over chords into an explosive force onstage. He has unlocked new portions of himself in the past few years, and the man appears born to perform. The first three or four times I saw him, his half ironic lounge-singer shimmy and sneering facial expressions induced fits of laughter in the crowd. Now, Tillman still throws in the occasional twist of the hips, but he’s even more dynamic–twirling the mic stand, climbing atop the kick drum, and descending from the stage to lean out into a sea of clamoring fans. Tillman has created solid songs, but his live performance takes his art and persona to additional heights. His set on Friday night at Stubb’s in Austin navigated all but one of the songs (“I Went to the Store One Day”) from his most recent album as well as nine of the tracks from Fear Fun. He didn’t leave out much.

Father_John_Misty_042415-16Near the end of the set, as Tillman performed masterpiece “Bored in the USA,” he leaned out into a sea of grasping hands and cell phones. He reached down and grabbed someone’s phone to film a panning shot of the audience before turning it on himself as he sang. Even as Tillman ingratiates himself to these avid fans, he’s making fun of us all, but he doesn’t exempt himself from this ridicule. Behind him onstage, a huge neon sign glowed with the words “No Photography.” Within minutes of the beginning of the show, Instagram and Twitter were littered with photos of the sign itself. It’s a self-aware exploration of the simultaneous desire to be heard as an artist and respected as an individual human being. Addressing these perplexing paradoxes of our age contribute to Tillman’s status as one of independent music’s most arresting and important voices. Tillman is neither afraid to look in the mirror, nor to ask his audience to do the same.

Father_John_Misty_042415-13Tillman’s selection of covers (Flaming Lips, John Lennon, Dory Previn) for his live performances have been a point of attraction for me each time I’ve seen him. He has impeccable taste, and didn’t disappoint on Friday with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.” Cohen’s own dark humor and social critique aligns closely with Tillman, and it’s easy to see the parallels between these two brilliant minds. In a few years, Tillman will likely have too many great songs to fit into a single night, and superfans will lament missing this song or that one, but for now, the musician is in full stride with two records of outstanding material. With a barrage of media attention and sold out shows every night, it’s unlikely you need to a reminder to see him, but here are our obligatory words of encouragement to do just that.

All photographs © Bryan C. Parker & Pop Press International; all rights reserved. Click any image to open set in slideshow viewer.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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