Josh Tillman performs as Father John Misty at The Anthem on Sept. 20, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
If there are identifiable traits that the best show people have had or have in common, those would have to include bravery and boldness — someone with the fearlessness and the audacity to take chances on ideas and carry them through in fulfillment of a vision.
When Joshua Tillman made the decision a decade ago to recreate himself artistically by rebranding to record and perform as Father John Misty, it was a potentially risky move for someone who’d already established himself as a respected singer-songwriter on his own and had been a member of numerous nationally known bands.
But in trusting his own instincts and believing in his own creativity, the Rockville native has proven himself to be one of the most ravishing performers today, one with ungodly imaginative flair and masterful execution on stage.
At The Anthem in DC the night of Sept. 20, Tillman only reinforced that he’s a one-of-a-kind, musical prophet, one with grand vision for creating ambitious, provocative, emotionally purging compositions and then shaping those into magnificent presentations on the stage.
It was the rare fully-seated show at the city’s most advanced venue, but alas, the packed house was on its feet by the time Tillman stepped into the lights, his large band in tow along with a bevy of instruments and equipment spread in all directions.
Stream Father John Misty’s 2022 album, Chloë and the Next 20th Century, via Spotify:
Out in support of his newest studio album, Chloë and the Next 20th Century, his fifth as Father John Misty, Tillman delivered an unforgettably lush and immersive set pulled from all of those recordings as he delighted the large audience with his incredible songs and his absorbing character.
Long and lean, with a brush cut and a handsome beard, Tillman took to the microphone with his otherworldly confidence, not far from where he grew up in a fairly strict Christian home, where as a young boy he had aspirations to one day be a priest. He was in a dark suit coat, dark pants and loafers — comfy, but his presence was still large for the opener, “I Love You, Honeybear,” from the 2015 album of the same title.
But by the end of it, he was on his knees as he sang this piece, and Father John had already swept up the crowd in majestic fashion. Supported by a group that harnessed and exacerbated the chamber element in his studio sound — with class, they’d implement everything from symphonic swells to big band bursts — it was clear early on that this local and his music have grown to be the perfect match for an extravagant auditorium.
Acoustic guitar in hand for “Total Entertainer Forever” from 2017’s Pure Comedy, Father John led this lively and abundant classic as a nonchalant leader and multi-tasker — his words and his natural way of finding a rhythm seemed to lay out a meandering path for the band, where they’d each have room to invent and color these complex songs all night long. Also showcased here was Tillman’s elegant, transfixing voice — it gloriously rose and then fell with frailty, a demonstration that puts him in rare company as a vocalist.
Watch the official music video for Father John Misty’s 2022 release, “Buddy’s Rendezvous, via the artist’s YouTube channel:
By the third song, the darker features of Tillman’s music surfaced for a heavy, entrancing take on “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” one that filled The Anthem and stirred an audience trying with all its might to interact with the inscrutable musician, who was the drummer for Fleet Foxes from 2008 to 2012 and was also a member of the Philadelphia-based band Saxon Shore.
In forging his career prior to his current run as Father John Misty, Tillman had moved to Seattle, where he eventually met and befriended Damien Jurado. When he stopped recording and playing gigs as Josh Tillman, he had decided some of his material was simply too slow and sad for his liking.
While the songs presented at The Anthem last week in DC weren’t entirely cordial or aimed at keeping the peace, what was clear was that Father John Misty is a vehicle for ideas and sounds that few might imagine. But such a kaleidoscopic projection requires an assured leader, someone with confidence and patience to assemble these songs with such astonishing detail, twists, turns and textures.
“Chloë,” from his newest album, ushered in a captivating old-time sound, highlighted by Kyle Flynn’s touch on the piano keys to give this song endless character. And with a magical, dreamy take on “Nancy From Now On,” from the first FJM album, Fear Fun, The Anthem was in a state of bliss, with the brass section positioned upstage right helping lift this song high and wide.
“Let’s chit chat,” Tillman eventually said to the room, tongue-in-cheek, strolling back and forth. “I need to be six, seven songs into a set before I can chit-chat. … Wow. It’s a big crowd.”
While his conversation was a tad awkward to start, he’d loosen up in short time, ultimately sharing revealing insight into some of his songs, drawing squeals and screams from the extraordinarily animated and passionate fans who’d found themselves seated — or standing, rather — close to the stage.
“Darko? A bunny?” he engaged with one crowd member. “You strike me as an iguana girl. … I don’t know either, sweetheart. We’ll send this one out to Darko.”
Demonstrating the variety within his songbook, and perhaps recalling some of his previous work as Josh Tillman, Father John led a picture-perfect “Goodbye Mr. Blue,” a standout single from Chloë and the Next 20th Century. While his intonation here was marvelous, he praised guitarist Chris Darley for the dazzling picking that characterized this track in its live form.
Stream Father John Misty’s recent live release, Live at Electric Lady, via Spotify:
“Did anyone else spend their lockdown writing deranged jazz music? … It’s surreal to be playing it to warm bodies.”
Seeming genuinely impressed, Tillman would applaud the whole group more than once as the night moved along: “Let’s hear it for this band.”
But with a miraculous presentation of his wordy-titled hit “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution,” Tillman provided more than sufficient evidence that he himself stands alone as an artist with imaginative flair and the courage to coordinate and execute spellbinding works of art in studio or on stage.
He told of the wild and spinning brainstorm behind “Pure Comedy,” a piece he concocted as a “space opera” but one that was substantially scaled back to a reasonable plotline thanks to keen advice from his wife, photographer and filmmaker Emma Elizabeth Garr.
Still, it came to be in the form of one of his most appreciated songs from the album of the same name released back in 2017, and one that translated to a sweeping, cinematic voyage at The Anthem. His voice becoming intense, almost primitive, Tillman poured himself into every word, lustfully swaying about the stage for a theatric and epic climax.
“So, if you take anything away from this evening, it’s never compromise for love,” he said to loud cheers. “You have to have a pretty big ego to do this kind of work — casting aspersions on all of humanity.”
Tillman was quick and clever, however, to avoid hypocrisy.
“When we play coast cities, we get a lot of ‘yeah fuck ‘em,’” and he pointed a finger to his chest. “I just wanted to let you know I implicate us all the time.”
A generational entertainer with meteoric capabilities and songwriting enthusiasm, he’d exhaust his banter — “my dad has Pentagon clearance … I’m a full beltway spook” — but in closing out a terrific set and then returning to encore with for four more songs, Tillman showed himself to be dignified, graceful and world class, just a short drive from his hometown.
I Love You, Honeybear
Total Entertainment Forever
Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
Nancy From Now On
Goodbye Mr. Blue
We Could Be Strangers
Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution
Ballad of the Dying Man
When You’re Smiling and Astride Me
Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)
The Ideal Husband
God’s Favorite Customer
I’m Writing a Novel
Here are images of Father John Misty, along with the night’s opener, Suki Waterhouse, performing at The Anthem in Washington DC the night of Sept. 20, 2022.