Father John Misty came to Arizona this past weekend, playing the Rialto Theater in Tucson on Friday, May 3rd, and the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix the following evening, May 4th. These dates mattered more than most, at least to the audience at the Rialto: May 3rd happened to be Father John’s (née Josh Tillman) birthday. Though it was his birthday, Father John seemed in no mood to celebrate. “Shut up” he sneered upon taking the stage, his first words in response to the audience’s shouts. When some began to serenade him with Happy Birthday during his monologue, he rerouted whatever analogy he was making to state that this was “almost as lame as singing happy birthday to the lead singer.” The room fell quiet. It’s moments such as these that make Father John Misty such a compelling musician, especially one to see live. The adversarial relationship he plays up with his audience results from a perhaps irresolvable tension: the artist’s natural desire to act upon his own terms rubbing up against the audience’s expectations, their demands something along the lines of pleasure and transcendence. When Happy Birthday was finally sung, it came sanctioned by Father John and his band. Benji Lysaght on lead guitar spelled out the tune and Emma Garr, Josh Tillman’s photographer girlfriend, brought out a cake. Father John took a bite, received a birthday kiss and, just for a moment, looked sheepish. But then the band started in on the next song, one of a litany from Fear Fun, the group’s debut album, Father John took the microphone and, for the first time in my memory, the lead singer began to sing with a piece of frosting caught unknowingly in his beard. Besides the frosting, this was, of course, all part of the performance. Tillman is aware that live and performance are often oxymoronic terms. Moreover, he is aware that others are aware of this, in on it, that both performers and audience members are well versed with the notion of the singer and his alter-ego, not to mention the ego itself, the sense of self-importance crafted from a contrarian stance. Because he is cognizant of this, Father John can at once embrace and undermine it: his shows and music are full of what he calls “an observational cantankerousness”, a wry and deprecatory self-awareness that extends to both his lyrics and his stripper/shaman dance act. An act, it very much is. Father John played the same set (almost the entirety of Fear Fun and, for the encore, the Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun and a new song, titled possibly, improbably Honey Bear) and made the same jokes both nights: he also told the crowd at Phoenix’s Crescent to shut up when he took the stage, kissed the hand of a fan during the first song, “Funtimes in Babylon”, and tore off his over-21 wrist band after its conclusion, introduced the song “I’m Writing a Novel” by mentioning it was an MP3 he once wrote, noted that he was singing with a white microphone stand, etc.. Tillman and his bandmates are hyper conscious of the product they are creating, that they have manifested something for us to consume but not necessarily understand, that they are one more diversion, “a pleasant evening of folk rock” to experience after another meaningless day of “increasing office productivity” (Father John’s words, more or less, spoken to the crowd at the Crescent, ironically, on a Saturday). But within that creation of self and product, of self as product, Father John delves into the contradictions that make him and his band truly fascinating and interesting musicians. A girl in the front row of the Crescent clutched a Fear Fun LP in her hand, lovingly tracing her fingers over the Yellow Submarinesque characters on its cover. It’s the age-old adoration of the artifact, the fast disappearing artifact, that sends us towards nostalgia and wistfulness, memories of trips to the record store. But Tillman is an intelligent enough performer that he can prevent us from skirting towards cliché, that he indicts us over the very artifact we expect him to cherish. The girl, after all, was holding an album that contains the song “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” and these opening lyrics: “Try not to think so much about/ The truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record/ All the shipping, the vinyl, the cellophane lining/ The high gloss/ The tape and the gear/ Try not to become too consumed/ With what’s a criminal volume of oil that it takes to paint a portrait.” It is not how one would expect to celebrate a debut album on SubPop. And those contradictions come to a head in the actual music. Father John’s self-label of folk rock is a bit sarcastic, not so much his assessment as what reviewers and fans and the music industry have deemed palatable. Indeed, when Father John starts talking about folk rock at the Crescent, he rips it, or at least he rips apart James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, calling it, in one of his finest and most accurate and perhaps unscripted moments, “cheese-dick coffeehouse music.” Fear Fun the album is anything but this: it opens up into lust, vash, sonic space, its sound well-walled and clean, not what we have come to expect from lo-fi folk rock. When played live, the band transforms the album’s songs into a good bit of country music, up-tempo 2/4 rollicks. Part of that is due to Benji Lysaght, an impeccable guitarist and the most prominent tonal variation when heard live. But contradictions and paradoxes abound even here: Lysaght might be the most prominent musician, but he stands apart, his back half-turned from his bandmates, and the actual ringleader and marshal of the band is Jeff “Jeffertitti” Ramuno, a so-called psychedelic Italian mystic and Tillman’s dearest friend. It’s about as distinct and different style and presence from Lysaght as possible, but it works. In both Tucson and Phoenix, Father John seemed tired. It had been a long tour; he had just turned 32. He had last performed in Arizona back in October of 2012 at Phoenix’s Rhythm Room. It is easy to forget, when someone returns after a long absence, that they too have changed, that they have new stories and songs to sing even though we have gathered to hear them rehash and re-revel the old. Father John was perhaps skeptical of those present, the audience ready to consume his music for just one night before increasing more office productivity. “I keep thanking you,” he said in Phoenix, “as if you’ve done me some great favor.” He refrained from saying whether any of this was true and the audience, likewise, refrained from telling him that he had done them a great favor, that they missed him, that he was more than a one night fling, that they had stuck around for him and would keep sticking around, that he was eminently worth the drive from Tucson to Phoenix and back, that they would keep consuming and following him in all the joy and peril that such consumption offered.
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