Father John Misty played a total of four public shows in San Francisco over the past month and a half. The initial interest in his music was likely in part due to the fact that “Father John Misty” is actually Josh Tillman, who gained notoriety as drummer of Fleet Foxes (and prior to that, Saxon Shore). His newest moniker has religious undertones and to me, evokes choral folk arrangements and blue-eyed gospel. The record, Fear Fun, released by Sub Pop in April, is lovely and interesting enough, but I haven’t been able to really connect with it like I thought I would. So it was a few friends’ glowing recommendations of Father John Misty’s live performance, and my desire to tap into something that I haven’t been able to find through my headphones, that incited me to hop on tickets the second I saw he was billed to play the Independent. And while it contains touches of the choral, the folky, and the spiritual, in a live context Father John Misty actually churns out a wild and visceral hybrid of country-soul, rock ‘n’ roll, and rootsy Americana, punctuated by Tillman’s psychedelic dancing flourishes and willful engagement with the crowd.
I haven’t been turned on by an artist’s raw talent in a while I guess. I haven’t been taken aback by an artist’s ability to transform himself on stage. Because Father John Misty kind of blew my mind. Not because I was hearing anything new, anything really novel, not beyond the ordinary bounds of an exceedingly talented musician doing his thing, with a band of solid musicians behind him, to a packed hot room reeking of weed. But because Tillman—an artist that has always sounded so contained to me on record—exuded enough charisma on stage to hook me for life. While I was watching him, I was thinking, “Now, here’s a guy that in another day, another time, would have major labels barking up trees to get at him, and with the proper backing and support could be even a Neil Young or Levon Helm of the next generation.” But these days, as we know, the rise of the rock star just doesn’t color our culture like it used to; the days of real rising rock stars, with a few exceptions, may well be behind us. The lifestyle of a touring artist is just goddamn taxing, and there is really no other viable way for most musicians to stay financially afloat these days. So while I certainly don’t doubt Tillman’s ability to endure, I think it will be much harder for him to eventually become a rich and living legend with a huge docket of projects under his belt and a sprawling catalog than it would have been 30 or 40 years ago. His set just made me really consider the difficulties facing artists riding on the current of today’s music industry, the harsh reality that a young talent with much to offer may be climbing ever slowly upward, while he deserves to catch a windfall.
Anyway, I digress. And I’m being depressing. My point is, Tillman, in his element on stage spearheading this project, was among the best and most genuine acts that I’ve seen in a long while. The songs from the new record sound like whole new beasts performed live—liberated, authentic, alive. The ending cover sequence of John Lennon’s “Mind Games” into Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize” was nothing short of enthralling to me. I was so excited at the end of the show, so happy with the prospect of watching this already prolific artist grow and evolve and mature and create, hopefully for years, or for as long as he wishes to do so.
Maybe it was just that time, that moment, those beers going down, the fact that I was in the market and in the mood for a bearded boy with a guitar delivering a set that really lit me up. (I really do love his beard.) But truth is, no matter the circumstances and no matter my mood, I know I would still walk away from his performance shaking my head in satisfaction, with the same sentiment ringing through my mind: I found what I was looking for.