“Oh, I’m gonna say some things tonight. But I’m gonna get drunk first.”
So went Josh Tillman’s opening salvo Thursday night at the District’s sold-out 9:30 Club, where he appeared as Father John Misty. While he didn’t get drunk (onstage, anyway), he did say plenty. About half the time, those musings were more interesting than the songs they were sandwiched between, but that seemed to be the point: The Father John persona has grown beyond songs — what Tillman half-seriously called “blistering, thunderous, fake-folk music” — into a vehicle for full expression of his philosophical, modern-day hippie aesthetic, by turns sleazy and insightful.
Tillman has been releasing solo records under the name J. Tillman since 2003 (at least six, scattered across a variety of labels), works that are marked by solemn introspection and mainly spare acoustic guitar arrangements. He also did a nearly three-year stint as drummer for the harmonizing Seattle country-folksters Fleet Foxes. “Fear Fun” — released under the Misty moniker a year ago — combines those two sounds and adds a dollop of country-fried boogie.
The best moments from Thursday’s hour-plus show were such songs as “I’m Writing a Novel,” “Only Son of the Ladiesman” and “Funtimes in Babylon,” which exuded that hazy insouciance, propelled by a moderately adept five-piece country-rock band.
Tillman was too busy being a lithe, hip-swerving, self-aware frontman to really worry about the sound too much. And he seemed destined for that role, tossing the mike stand, poking fun at himself and his band and dipping the set in and out of total self-indulgence. And sometimes even singing.
Yeah, there were tedious interludes. “This Is Sally Hatchet,” for example, seemed endless, devoid of melody or direction and reeking of seedy decadence. A mute button would have been useful, so one could wait for the song to finish while staring at the enormous mural that hung behind the stage. A perfect visual for Misty’s musical vision, it was a dizzying tapestry — a melange of naked women, cigarettes, Disneyland, the Great Pyramids, a church on fire, a cheerleader pyramid and, of course, Misty himself entering some sort of golden gateway.
And while the main set was essentially a “Fear Fun” promotion exercise — Tillman and the band seemed a bit weary of the task — the encore was the night’s most lively section: a pair of kaleidoscopic new songs and a fittingly flaccid cover of the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” And Tillman was positively giddy about making a new album: “I wish we could all just get stoned in my van and I could play you the rough mixes!” Given the ovation that rained down as he left the stage, it seemed there were few who would have turned down the invite.
Foster is a freelance writer.