There’s a marquee outside the colossal Kings Theatre in Flatbush, encased in a glossy bright border and situated atop sets of elegant hanging lights. Tonight the white letters beneath the venue’s name are arranged to read, “FATHER JOHN MISTY TONIGHT 8PM SOLD OUT”. It’s a display fitting for a movie premiere featuring Hollywood’s biggest stars, and the last sort of presentation you’d expect for an artist of Misty’s sonic demeanor. More than two hours later, on a second look given while exiting, it comes off as one last wink at performance from an evening filled with them.
Father John Misty, indie hero to his fans and arrogant exhibitionist to his critics, broke the bottle on a new world tour named after his latest album, ‘Pure Comedy’, in mid-April. Distorted-rock darling Weyes Blood and oddball comedian Tim Heidecker have joined the former Fleet Foxes drummer, real name Josh Tillman, on his first few stops, but on this night the opener is another drummer-gone-solo venture in Dams of the West, engendered by Chris Tomson of Vampire Weekend fame. The chatty Tomson shares with the settling audience his own brand of self-aware anxiety in songs from his ‘Youngish American’ album. It’s a harmless enough mimicry of the main act with a bit less bite.
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Following a brief intermission allowing for stragglers and trips to restock at the bars, the room takes on a bluish hue, band members file onto the stage, and a spotlight hits a pianist situated at stage right. Tillman is the last to enter, greeting a raucous cheer and jumping straight into the nightly-news sound bite that begins ‘Pure Comedy’, the title track and album opener. Like a number of songs on the LP, a good portion consists of Tillman, a piano backdrop for him to wax philosophical over, and not much else. In grand ballad fashion, voice and piano run into deeper instrumentation, and it sets in just how many people are on the stage. At least a dozen other musicians, representing drums, strings, horns, and keys, accompany Tillman, who falls on his knees to ferociously conduct the first song’s jolting climax. It brings a whole lot of color, literally and figuratively, snapping a hypnotized audience out of its trance.
As he proceeds through the ‘Pure Comedy’ album, Tillman uses the enormous screen behind him to flash the grotesque Ed Steed illustrations that have animated several of his recent videos in addition to the LP’s packaging. They see humans as Tillman’s narrative does: wild, scared, outraged, dependent, and the list goes on. Skeletons wearing virtual reality headsets are succeeded by chillingly empty landscapes. The lighting resets with each number, a drummer’s count cueing up the next round.
Tillman alternates between playing the guitar and holding nothing but the mic stand, lightly gesturing along with his songs’ commentary. Many of the lines receive bouts of hollering and applause, and each audible audience member makes it clear that the warm reception comes as much from an appreciation of the cutting lyrical content as it does from the music.
A space in which even its audience’s voices shine is a greater blessing for a singer, and everything from Tillman’s rumbling growls to his mesmerizing falsettos soars through the palatial interior of Kings Theatre. No sentiment is lost, and yet occasional appeals such as “turn up the vocals!” still rise from the crowd. Tillman doesn’t respond, treating the proceedings as strictly business and letting the songs speak for themselves. He runs through ‘Ballad of the Dying Man’, a swan song for an Internet troll, as well as the reflective psychedelics of ‘A Bigger Paper Bag’, which triggers plenty of vapes all around. These tunes are full of the same self-deprecation and deadpan digs at society present in a Louis C.K. or Norm Macdonald set, and Tillman utilizes his lovely melodies not as masks for his remarks, but as conduits.
And then he pauses. “Thank you very much,” Tillman says, sounding like he’s finished a workout, or a catharsis, more likely. They’re the first words outside of the music all night, and not the last. He gets laughs out of poking fun at the relic in which he’s entertaining and, later on, a crewmember mistakenly handing him the wrong guitar.
The second half of the show brings out new color palettes of deep purples and reds to complement old favorites from the first two Misty albums, ‘Fear Fun’ and ‘I Love You, Honeybear’. Tillman is a more uninhibited being from this point on, going full Mick Jagger with snaps and spastic, almost tortured, dance moves that send shockwaves into an already thrilled crowd. He wordlessly encourages audience members from floor level to balcony to stand up and shed the stuffiness of lingering in their assigned seats.
A song on ‘Pure Comedy’ entitled ‘Leaving LA” has the line, “I used to like this guy, this new shit really kinda makes me wanna die.” It’s a ten-verse encapsulation of the recent album, and one of the few songs Tillman doesn’t play.
Friends and loved ones put arms around each other during ‘Honeybear’ standouts like ‘When You’re Smiling and Astride Me’, its sensual killer guitar riff intact, and the pleading ‘Strange Encounter’. A suspended omnipresent moon, a nod to the cover of ‘Pure Comedy’, transforms into a pulsating heart for the multilayered moans of ‘True Affection’, another critique of technology addiction, here sounding more rock and roll than its original electronic form. Bombastic drums and a shape-shifting Tillman, who at any moment can be a manic silhouette drenched in yellow or a glowing celestial being strumming away, add a rousing layer to established songs.
Tillman rewards his captive audience with a five-song encore, now approaching a trip through nearly every song in his young but complex discography. The last animation, during ‘Pure Comedy’ closer ‘In Twenty Years or So’, is of an ambitious man with a rocket on his back, wearing a twisted smile and flying through the clouds until he breaches Earth’s atmosphere and explodes. The resulting fireworks fade to reveal his face on the very moon seen all night long, his smirking visage directed toward the planet he’s escaped.
“I’ll just stand here until the illusion has dissipated,” the man best known as Father John Misty joked while waiting for that misplaced guitar. It still hasn’t.