Photos by Jennifer Jones
If you've been to a Fleet Foxes show, you know you can count on J. Tillman to provide a bit of droll banter. As the (former) drummer for the shaggy Seattle folk pop act, he punctuated the group's soaring sweetness with acerbic humor about the fame they were attracting. Pull the dude out from behind the drum kit and into frontman status, and that self-effacing, ironic commentary becomes half of the entertainment of the show, as all of us fans discovered when Tillman's new band, Father John Misty, headlined Bottom of the Hill last night.
This new gig isn't Tillman's first time writing his own material. He was a big part of Seattle's acoustic troubadour scene long before getting swept up into the Fleet Foxes. But this Father John Misty deal is something completely different. It has a whole different swagger going on. The breakout hit off the debut record, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," has done some serious inception on my listening practices. I play that thing at least once a day – not to mention the rest of the new Sub Pop disc, Fear Fun. On record, the songs are a collection of punchy pop numbers and cosmic country ballads. They're so good, sweeping you up in arrangements that balloon with ebullient harmonies and melodies. But live, they're almost better, as Tillman sharpens the edges by exaggerating the sentiments in the songs, playfully mocking himself as he sings.
Watching Tillman tussle his hair, cock his hips, throw up his bands, and otherwise become a serious indie boy drama queen, it was almost like seeing someone do karaoke versions of their favorite songs rather than deliver something they'd worked hard to perfect into great pop nuggets. The guy is no wilting flower. He knows how to work a crowd, that much was glaringly obvious. (I think even the straight guys around me were developing serious man crushes on Tillman's charisma).
Tillman's snarky attitude and incessant need to turn the space between songs into standup routines was refreshing. The other bands in this scene are comprised of pretty earnest folks, and Tillman smashes any sense of preciousness by going the other extreme and forgoing any sort of off switch. During the hour long set, he joked about his appreciation for Cinco de Mayo, described the lighting and decor at Bottom of the Hill as looking like a mushroom trip, and mockingly asking for more adoration while coming off like the kinda dude who definitely eats up all the attention.
His songs are only slightly more subtle. (On the track "I'm Writing a Novel," for example, he quips, "I'm writing a novel because it's never been done before.") Everything about Father John Misty comes off with a wink, a nod, and a sneaky smile because Tillman knows he's on to something here, even if part of his act is acting like he doesn't give a shit.
You had the definite sense last night that Father John Misty had outgrown Bottom of the Hill-sized venues before they even sold out this show. The songs are tight, the delivery even tighter, and the humor ridiculous ... and also a lot of fun.