The Night J. Tillman Returned to KC: Father John Misty at CrossroadsKC
I won't try to hide it: I'm a Father John Misty devotee. I think the voice of his work is incredibly refined, and 'Bored in the USA' spoke to my sensibilities enough to get me hooked. Naturally, then, I figured covering this show would be a fairly straightforward, even natural, task. I was wrong, dear friends, and it is my hope that this piece over which I have endeavored communicates the profundity its subject made me feel. Tillman, after struggling with the very notion of being an entertainer, seems to have found peace. This show was at once a treat to newcomers, and a testament to Tillman's development as an artist.
Shrouded by smoke machines, Tillman emerged from the stage side as the opening sequence of 'Pure Comedy' began. After a faithful rendition, excited fans called out to him; if you are a fan of Father John Misty, then at this point you're aware of his penchant for stage banter. This Kansas City crowd certainly was, and they were intent on getting a rise out of him. He chuckled, and then continued into 'Total Entertainment Forever.' Without the horn section, the song endeavors to retain some of its whimsy, but Tillman's lyrical embellishments and meter-switches kept the crowd's attention -- especially those trying to sing along. Notwithstanding, the candid spontaneity of these changes give a sense of newness to each performance, and ultimately gives fans an idea of how his ideas evolve over time. One gets the sense Tillman is a Joycean artist who, having ruminated over his work for some time, decides he has much more to say.
The piano introduction of 'Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution' prompted a thunderous response from the crowd, which seemed to lighten Tillman's mood a bit. This is where the fun began: responding to the energy of the crowd, he began his impromptu stage dancing -- a confident, carefree, and decidedly feminine display. As the climax of the song rang loudly, he dropped to his knees to sing: "Industry and commerce topple to their knees." A short pause before the final verse allowed a more conversational return; he gazed into the audience as if speaking to them directly in a teasing manner, inviting more rapport.
A fan cried out, "Ryan Adams sucks!" to which he replied,
"He really does," pausing for laughter, another fan yelled,
"Summer of '69!" Tillman chuckled and shook his head, positing,
"I think hearing that at every concert of your life would make you deranged... you have to sort of suck to do this sort of thing."
This encounter set the tone for a chatty and boisterous crowd, and began what would become a long line of witty-but-genuine communication between Tillman and his fans. An enchanting highlight was his KC-tailored performance of 'When You're Smiling And Astride Me.' In between sensual hip dances, he addressed the crowd while he sang; it was a subversion of performance which could only have come from someone who had struggled profoundly with the nature of his role. He paused for a moment before the final verse, and then began,
"Baby, last time I came to see you in town we had a critical misunderstanding at the Blind Tiger... You were a true asshole." Then, after namedropping social media and Kendall Jenner, concluded, "I'm going to go back to the Blind Tiger," eliciting enthusiasm from the crowd. "Anyway, one last thing," he said, and then finished the song. Immediately following this was another highlight, a performance of one of his earlier works, 'Nancy From Now On.' He seemed to enter into a different mode when he played his older songs, but this didn't detract from the masterful arrangement; the disparity between chorus and verse was marked by a slowly building crescendo, followed by an explosion into a dreamy falsetto. The result was an irresistibly danceable groove.
Midway through the show, he inquired:
"Would you prefer if I deviated from the original material? Maybe a Kinks cover?" then tried to find the correct key, "Huh, they're all in A." He started to play 'Lola,' but stopped after a few words, saying, "That's not how it goes." He turned to the front of the audience, and, noticing that they were sequestered off from the GA pit, he inquired, "Did you guys buy some insane golden circle ticket?" to which someone responded,
"FJM!" he laughed, then replied,
"That's what I call myself, for some reason. Look, we've got a pretty good rapport, but let's get back to business. There's folk rock to be played. Folk rock in a pirate shirt." The audience laughed, and applauded as though he'd just finished a song.
The sonic climax of the show was undoubtedly the three-song sequence of 'When the God of Love Returns,' 'Birdie,' and 'Paper Bag.' These songs, off of his new album Pure Comedy, sounded simultaneously true-to-studio and refreshingly atmospheric. I couldn't help but think that this was the way the songs were meant to be heard. Interestingly, at the end of 'God of Love,' Tillman hung on to the final line, "Oh my lord," as if in prayer -- this amplified the despair of the song.
'True Affection' came crashing in with the arpeggiation of an incredibly loud sawtooth synthesizer while Tillman lit a cigarette, playfully frolicking about the stage. The vocal harmonies rang loudly here; it sounded as though he added a high octave pedal to his falsetto during the chorus. He danced wildly after an exaggerated drum fill, keeping time with (and taking cues from) the drummer. He ended the first part of his show on 'I Love You, Honeybear,' going to join hands with the crowd, and returning to deliver the final lines with passion. He jokingly waved and shimmied to the crowd, then left the stage.
Upon returning, he faked a serious tone, saying "I don't know how well this is gonna come off, but when I came to see you, you were acting like a petulant dork," he said of someone in the audience. "I spent most of the time [backstage] trying to get my zipper up." The crowd whistled and laughed, and he continued, "It's still down." He carried on, "Sounds like an inquisitive crowd," and then paused to listen to whomever he could make out of the yelling. "What's that? Oh, I'm obsessed with Jimmy Johns," he joked, and then fielded another question about the eclipse: "I'm gonna stare straight into the eclipse," he chuckled, "I'll probably be watching Game of Thrones."
Someone in the crowd mentioned Ricky Martin, and he shared a story about how he saw him at Dakota Johnson's birthday party: "it was apparent to me that Ricky Martin was not present during the mixing of his albums. We don't have much in common, so I was trying to regale him with gear talk -- and my gear guy is looking over at me weird -- I don't know anything about gear."
One fan requested 'Leaving LA,' prompting an anecdote: "You know, I played Leaving LA last night, and I completely fucked it up. I had like a fifteen piece string section, and I just completely forgot every fucking lyric. I just had to improvise." Parodying himself, he sang, "I ate Jimmy Johns today," then suggested, "How about we play a song equally as long?" He entered into a somnolent but reverent rendition of 'So I'm Growing Old on Magic Mountain.' He closed the show with 'The Ideal Husband,' again dancing wildly and screaming some of his vocal parts. He went to greet the crowd once more, and then dropped to his knees at the end of the show.
The real highlight of the show, for me, was 'Bored in the USA.' As a response to the political turmoil in the United States, he pleaded, "Save me president... anyone!" I thought it especially telling that he chose to end the song with "that's how it happened," as if to respond to his distaste for performing the song post-election. Lo and behold, after the show, I got a chance to ask him about it myself. I asked, in particular, if he still had this distaste for performing 'Bored.' He responded that being able to tap into that song was an empathic act; he saw it as a form of entering into who he once was and what he once thought. Further, he shared that the song, to him, was about confronting difficult feelings and coming to terms with reality.
Oh, he also drew me a crying ice cream cone.