Live Review, 5/5/12: Father John Misty Skips Right to the Fun at Bottom of the Hill

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Father John Misty at Bottom of the Hill on Saturday.

Father John Misty
Har Mar Superstar
Worth Taking
Saturday, May 5, 2012
Bottom of the Hill

Better than: Five bearded dudes in flannel lulling an audience to sleep in perfect harmony.

Father John Misty has two songs left to play. But Josh Tillman (or J. Tillman, or "the former drummer of Fleet Foxes," depending on your frame of reference) isn't about to go through the normal pomp and circumstance. "There's a dash between these next two on the setlist, so let's get that out of the way."

Dispersed chants of "one more song" and spontaneous wooing follow. Tillman and the band rip through "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Songs," a booming performance that would've rightfully spun any crowd into a frenzy for more music. So Tillman simply faux-tosses his shirt as the band takes a hurried bow. He gives away the setlist, and encourages the drummer to do the same with a pair of drumsticks. A quick smirk, then right back to the instruments, never leaving the stage: "We really expedited that encore with with everyone's dignity intact, really framed the suspense."

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With moments like this, it's clear Father John Misty doesn't operate in the same hyper serious, solemn territory of Tillman's former band. Forget what some music recommendation services tell you (this week's AOL Spinner stream of Fear Fun for instance, "Sounds like: Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes"), Tillman left that scene behind for the better. (It's worth noting: "O I Long To Feel Your Arms Around Me," arguably the most Fleet Foxes-like song on Fear Fun, remains noticeably absent for the night). Father John Misty brings a greater variety of music and a more fun live atmosphere while still maintaining the level of performance quality.

Immediately Tillman comes across as a natural at the front of the stage. Years of performing as a solo artist certainly help build comfort, but there's an easiness to Father John Misty tunes that lets him completely cut loose. He moves on stage without inhibition, like some cross between Elvis and an SNL parody of some female lounge singer on her fourth glass of wine. His hands are consistently expressive in air, his hips shaking in a way that screams honky-tonk.

This vibe permeates all aspects of the performance. Tillman banters as if he doesn't take himself too seriously, but it feels genuine and not like some pretentious version of aloof. He laments a song that showed up on the Home Shopping Network ("Only Son of the Ladiesman"), is quick to dismiss any praise for his hair ("Fuck my hair"), and swears Bottom of the Hill's designer either wanted to recreate a dive from Avatar or the experience of being on 'shrooms... from the perspective of someone who never took them.

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The music moves just as effortlessly. Father John Misty's tunes have an undeniable twang to them, but by no means can you describe them as straight ahead country or blues. "Well, You Can Do It Without Me," is seeping with soul, and when performed live Tillman takes general pauses to let grand drum fills lead back in. The song has an Otis Redding-esque whistle as well. "Nancy From Now On" shows this band can incorporate the Fleet Foxes-style harmonies, but in a much more appealing (read: upbeat) manner. The intro to "This Is Sally Hatchet" almost feels like something that could have been on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York.

But it's "Now I'm Learning To Love The War" that represents the epitome of Father John Misty live. The song has a vaudeville quality to it -- theatrical lyrics with instrumentation that's merely an accompaniment to Tillman tapping into his inner diva. On paper the words read ridiculous, and the musical style seems an odd choice in 2012. Yet as Tillman wails through the chorus -- snapping his arms down while making a hard, come-hither turn toward the audience -- there's a level of seriousness to his band's utter lack of it that grips you. Perhaps this is where the real comparison to his former act can be made. Each approaches what they do with a sense of great importance. One just happens to promote a good time for all.

Critic's Notebook

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"Is that Jon Lovitz?":
Har Mar Superstar ranks as one of the best opening act surprises I've had. I thought lead singer Sean Tillman (no relation) was a roadie for superficial reasons during their setup. But when he takes the stage, this Tillman releases a similarly powerful tenor and falsetto combo, but within a dance-pop realm. His hypersexualized performance -- stripping down to his briefs and gyrating on stage like the Prince T-shirt he ditched -- captivated the audience. Listening to this band and Father John Misty, you'd never figure out why they were touring together. But each frontman demands a good-time atmosphere, and promotes it through a carefree yet nuanced performance.

"I have lead you here, for I am Spartacus": If Josh Tilman gets branded as the ex-Fleet Foxes drummer for awhile, where does this album rank among modern "drummer side project" releases? Fabrizio Moretti's effort as Little Joy is still my favorite, but Father John Misty puts Phil Selway's debut to shame (and let's not even talk of Big Talk).

Setlist:
1. I'm Writing A Novel
2. Nancy From Now On
3. Misty's Nightmares 1 & 2
4. Only Son of the Ladiesman
5. This is Sally Hatchet
6. Well, You Can Do It Without Me
7. Now I'm Learning To Love The War
8. Every Man Needs A Companion
9. Hollywood Forever Cemetery Songs
--
10. Fun Times In Babylon

See also: J. Tillman on Becoming Father John Misty: "My Music Was a Bigger Deal to Me Than Being in Fleet Foxes Was"

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Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., San Francisco, CA

Category: Music

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