Drummers, eh? They can be real dark horses – think Dave Grohl and Dennis Wilson or, in this case, Josh Tillman. He was always more than the guy with the sticks in the acclaimed Fleet Foxes. His career as a singer-songwriter stayed essentially underground, though, until he adopted the moniker Father John Misty. Now he’s developing a notable cult following of his own. I confess I feel part of it.
Fear Fun, his debut album as FJM, is my favourite of this year. It switches mainly between lush 1970s So-Cal pop and loose-limbed renegade country. A tale of getting over a West Coast crack-up – as much thinking as drinking in LA – it’s literate, wry and gorgeously sung. On stage, Tillman takes it to another level. As a performer, he’s all-in: swaggering yet fey, louche but self-mocking, an almost cabaret twist on the Jagger-esque conventions of the frontman. His quips – which here included gags about carrot sticks and being taught that Thanksgiving celebrates “President Jesus” – could earn him a spot on Saturday Night Live.
A five-piece group supported the handsomely voiced singer to the hilt. The drums (not Tillman’s) on “Only Son of the Ladiesman” pounded like a tribal fertility rite; if they were too thudding for the reveries of “Nancy from Now On” and “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2” that’s a small beef. The urban choogle of “I’m Writing a Novel” became increasingly manic, as if frying in its own juices. “Sally Hatchet” unexpectedly quoted a chord progression from Hendrix’s “The Stars That Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice” in its heady chug.
Lyrically and in delivery, Tillman was both fully committed to and knowingly ironic about his act, which is kind of where we are as a culture. During “Every Man Needs a Companion”, his bromantic ode, he waded into the crowd, still crooning, in search of “the best-looking dude in here”. To close the set, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”, a primal stomp in hock to Neil Young at his heaviest, wrung out controlled devilry from whirring feedback.
He encored with the gooey standard “Nevertheless” – telling a female admirer who urged him to remove his shirt, “But my chest hair doesn’t sing, baby” – and that sayonara of the psychedelic jug band, Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again”. Earlier, apropos a line about having to write his own myth, he had ad-libbed “pretty good, I guess”. He wasn’t wrong.
FJM plays in Glasgow on November 26; fatherjohnmisty.com