Father John Misty review (Forum Theatre, Melbourne)

Josh Tillman, in his alter-ego as Father John Misty, is the new millennium folk rock singer-songwriter. Sure, he sings about feelings ’n’ stuff, just like his bearded forefathers of the 1970s. But his show at the Forum in Melbourne last night was way bigger, more expressionistic and funnier than anything those old Laurel Canyon hippy cowboys could muster.

This is the personal writ large; the inner psyche, the soul of Josh Tillman and the soul of America cast onto a vast sonic canvas.

Despite the personal subject matter and the cultural signs of hippiedom (beards, personal lyrics, strummed guitars, the ‘authenticity stance’) the Father John Misty show is mediated by technology. This mighty show is a sound and light edifice that enfolds and overwhelms. There are enormous and exhilarating crescendi, a light show that flashes (too often) and dazzles.

His band, earnestly bearded and leaning into the throbbing and expressive songs, play with fire and attention to detail. Some of this detail is lost as it is all mixed into a loud, reverberant gloop. No matter — the important moments poke through — the sneaky Beatle-esque lo-fi guitar in Sally Hatchet for example. And it’s all a backdrop for The Voice.

What a voice Josh Tillman’s possesses! It is pure and tuneful. If I were in a small room with him I’d expect to be impressed. But at the Forum it is projected through a gigantic PA and (most importantly) sunk into a luxuriant reverb. The sound is soulful and heavenly. If you’ve heard the records you know what I mean. Now imagine that at 110 decibels swirling around the ceiling.

The show opened with a climactic rendering of the title track of his latest album; I Love You Honeybear. The full panoply of gestures was there: lanky hip-swivelling, intense lighting bursts, gothic reverberant sound, Tillman falling to his knees like a southern preacher. It was so spectacular that I felt I’d got my money’s worth and the band had nowhere else to go.

Don’t think that this immensity of sound, light and gesture was all puffed up and hollow. Despite the knee drops, the madly imploring arms, the undercutting irony and the distancing of the cavernous vocal effect there’s feeling and, more pointedly, specific and accessible meaning.

The words matter and they appeared to be listened to and understood by an attentive audience (I heard people laughing at the jokes inside the lyrics). The audience at this Father John Misty gig didn’t seem to be merely enjoying the spectacle; they actually appeared to ‘get it’. Depth, breadth, humour and pathos sustained the gig; in short, great songs. How old fashioned.

I’ve often marvelled at how a touring act can manage to sustain the appearance of being vitally and authentically connected to the material they are performing. Surely they forget the songs’ original impulse. Tiredness, sore throats, and the emptiness of repetition must sometimes take over. ‘I feel it so I do it’ is supplanted by ‘I do it because it’s my job.’ Tillman referred to this in one of several dry, witty monologues. Spotting audience members who attended the previous evening, he remarked that he was painfully aware of not wanting to repeat any banter. ‘I was on fire last night’ he mugged.

This droll self-deprecation was laced through the evening. Later he mocked his Grammy nomination for ‘best packaging’. One song later, and after an audience interjection along the lines of ‘we love you’, he retorted ‘it’s only a nomination for best packaging — I’m not some kind of god.’

A discourse on his bad-hair-day (hair and beards, need I say again, are very important ‘round these parts) is followed by a dry ‘let’s play more folk-rock’.

What followed was the aching and intimate Chateau #4 (in C for Two Virgins).The encore was an hilarious five minute Q and A without the band. He managed to philosophically entwine two questions — one on his adoption of an alter-ego and the other on the pleasure of ‘butt-play’ — before once again, dropping out of drollery and into the intimacy of I Went To The Store One Day; a song about how his life changed the day he met his wife. He’s still singing these songs like they mean something to him, somehow preserving the intensity and intent of the original creation.

Other highlights included the wickedly sleazy rumination on sex and death,Hollywood Cemetery (big ups to the sound person — just like the record, only better) and an incredibly moving Bored In The USA. Tillman really hits the mark for me when he blends the personal and the political; ‘… we’re naked on the mattress while the global market crashes’.

At one stage Tillman characterised himself, with his cynical outlook, as an 80 year old in a 30 year old’s body. I don’t believe him. His songs are ripe with the immediacy of being his age. They are full of the feelings of being a smart, white, 30 year old guy in the US.

These are songs about fucking strangers, finding a life partner, being terrified, horny, humbled, angry and amused. Bad songs often can only render one emotional state and don’t do complexity well. Good art, on the other hand, can have all the elements of life jostling around inside an enclosed quantum universe. I was happy to be blown about in Tillman’s quantum storm.