Father John Misty
Roundhouse, Camden – 19th May 2016
A Rihanna cover, a reference to his ‘Beyonce Money’, and some explosively sensual dance moves. It could only be Father John Misty.
“I get propositioned almost every night on tour… by a really hot sounding dude”, Josh Tillman announces mid-gig, following a string of progressively more explicit declarations of love from a somewhat over-zealous, husky-voiced punter. “Growing up, this was always the dream. To look out over a sea of sexy bros”. To be fair, seeing him tonight in full flow, brilliantly illuminated and cavorting centre-stage while belting out tracks from his Father John Misty albums – in between a plethora of casually deployed, off-hand witticisms – it’s difficult not fall for his rugged, hirsute, and yet somehow slightly effeminate charm.
From his pseudo-preacher stage name to his startling resemblance to a sharply tailored, be-suited Jesus, there’s always been an oddly religiously lilt to Tillman’s alter ego, and tonight that parallel is further enforced by a live show which oscillates between the wildly evangelical and the salaciously hedonistic. Tracks like Hollywood Cemetery Forever, Tillman’s angular, distorted expression of his inner grunger, see him back-lit by a hazy red glow that leaves him as a dark, gyrating silhouette. It’s at moments like this that you feel as though you’re stumbled into some seedy bordello where Father John has been booked as the evening’s entertainment. By contrast, Only Son of a Preacher Man feels like a born-again revival, without the self-righteous idealism, as the lighting switches to a clean white, Tillman’s hair haloed from behind, making him look all the more like the modern and openly flawed messiah he so often resembles. It’s difficult not to stand up in the metaphorical pews and sing his praises to the rafters.
There’s a temptation upon hearing the predominately acoustic-driven, country-tinged offerings from Father John Misty’s two studio LPs Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear, to assume that a stripped back, folksy performance will be the natural incarnation for his music to assume on stage. This a myth which Tillman sets about dismantling with his gloriously unrestrained set that sees him belt out this collection of tunes with a visceral intensity that will give you chills – never more apparent than when the usually dulcet Holy Shit descends into an aggressive, atonal bombardment that assaults the senses, before meandering back to more familiar territory for a rousing finale, underpinned by some soaring vocal harmonies.
Elsewhere, the digitised, synth-propelled True Affection becomes a house rave, replete with Epilepsy-inducing pink strobes, while his performance on Bored in the USA is more reminiscent of stand up gig than a rock show as he wanders across the stage – every gesture and flicker of the eyes designed to elicit a reaction from his captivated audience. He draws laughs effortlessly with interspersion of some well-placed profanity, while the gentle tinkling of ivories and profound subject matter underscore the whimsical delivery with a potent social commentary and delicious sense of irony. Finally, set-closer I Love You, Honeybear sees the charismatic showman launch himself into the crowd, surfing the grateful wave of hands for a period before dropping into the sweaty midst of his dedicated following.
As if to cap off a night where the mystic shaman remains as delightfully unpredictable as ever, Tillman returns for his encore unaccompanied (“I was halfway to the bus but my business manager dragged me back… ‘They’re dying for it’, he told me”, the maestro shares with a wry smile) busting out a tender rendition of I Went to the Store that works in a gleefully-received nod to his recent revelation that his music has been used on a new Beyonce track, before launching in to a down-and-dirty cover of Rihanna’s latest smash hit Kiss It Better. “I’ve never heard a more moving tribute to going down on someone”, he says by way of explanation. When he’s done re-working this chart-topper it’s difficult to imagine the Bajan songstress herself delivering a more sexually-charged performance. Bizarrely it seems exactly what was called for – “You’ve got to pull a rabbit out of the hat, having just fucking stage-dove”, he adds, recalling the earlier fictionalised managerial conversation backstage.
When the curtain closes following a suitably ferocious outing of Ideal Husband it’s not hard to see why Father John Misty is being touted as a must-see live act. With Tillman the undisputed star of the show – he jokingly berates his guitarist for “speaking into the mic”, reminding him that “it’s my show!” – the momentum looks set to continue for the mesmerising impresario. With or without his Beyonce royalties.
Words: Henry Wickham