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Father John Misty at Mercury Lounge

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

Joshua “J” Tillman and his new group put on a spectacular and engaging show last night.

When I first heard about Father John Misty and saw the group's epic performance on Letterman a few weeks ago and then learned he was coming to New York City, I knew I had to get to one of his shows.  I made it to the late show for their set last night at the sold out Mercury Lounge, where the line was as long as I have ever seen it.  There was a buzz outside from the crowd, and we all filed in to the crowded back room.

I was looking forward to seeing if the high levels of charisma that front man J. Tillman, formerly the drummer for the band Fleet Foxes among other things, would last the entire show.  The song he sang on Letterman, "Only Son of the Ladiesman", is quite whimsical in nature, but other songs that I've heard of his have a bit more edge to them.  I wondered how that energy would translate over to those numbers, and of course what else the band had up its sleeve.

Before we got to Father John Misty, the opening group was Har Mar Superstar.  I felt like I'd heard the name of the group before, but couldn't recall ever listening to their music.  Their front man was very familiar to me, but I had to check online just to confirm my suspicion.  Har Mar Superstar is fronted by Sean Tillman, who uses that moniker for his performances.  I recognized him from the memorable (maybe just to me) dance-off scene in 2004's "Starsky and Hutch" where he goes toe-to-toe with Ben Stiller in the dance floor.  He didn't do any singing in the movie, but I could match those dance moves to Dancin' Rick any day.

What I didn't expect from Har Mar Superstar were some fantastic vocals.  Tillman has a lovely voice in the upper range, and it never wavered even as he moved about the stage.  I wouldn't quite call Tillman's moves "sexy", but they were something.  They matched the tone and lyrics in his songs, which seemed to focus on partying and ladies, although there were definitely some ballad-like jams thrown in there.  Tillman gyrated about and flirted with the ladies in the front row, even grabbing one lucky lady's drink and taking a swig before returning the last sip to her.  He caressed women's hair, shook is ass in front of the men near the stage, and called out anyone who wasn't having as good of a time as he thought they should be having.  

Another unexpected surprise was the gradual disrobing that took place as the show progressed.  Apparently this is the norm at a Har Mar Superstar show, but it caught me completely off guard.  I'm not sure how many layers Tillman started with, but they all ended up on the floor by the end of the show.  I'm not in perfect shape, so I'm not one to judge the body types of others.  But Har Mar Superstar is by no means a model.  What he may have lacked in sex appeal, he made up for with his confidence.  It takes a supremely confident man to bare almost everything on stage, no matter what kind of shape you're in, and I have to give him credit for that.  The ladies ate it up, hooting and hollering as each shirt and finally his trousers came off.  He even made a pass through the crowd and danced up on some guys for good measure.  Not exactly my style, but it was an entertaining way to start the late night show.

Pulling double duty during the opening set was Father John Misty himself, Joshua Tillman.  He played drums for Sean Tillman (no relation), and both had some interesting banter during the show.  When Har Mar Superstar told the audience that FJM was there playing drums, he shrugged and said, "I do it all.  But you're not paying me shit."  

As Friday night became early Saturday morning, Father John Misty finally got onstage.  The band is six members deep, with Tillman on vocals, two guitarists, a bass, keyboard, and drums.  This group looked ready to put on a show, and they certainly did.  Tillman was just as energetic and eccentric on stage as he was during his Letterman performance, and he kept it up for the entire show.

What I thought was simply an act prior to seeing him live turned out to be sincere.  There was real honesty in everything that Tillman did on stage.  He strutted around, waved his arms frantically in the air, pulled at his hair, grimaced, smiled, screamed, jumped.  He was everywhere all at once, but his moves didn't seem unnatural when paired with the songs.  He was wild during songs like "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings", flailing around on the ground, and reserved during slower songs like "Everyman Needs a Companion".  And not once did it take away from his vocal performance.  His voice shone through on songs like "This Is Sally Hatchet" and "I'm Writing a Novel" and he even broke into some speak-singing at times.  Backing vocals/harmonies made the songs even more enjoyable.

Here's the group performing the rousing "Only Son of the Ladiesman" to a crowd that ate it all up:

<iframe width="640" height="360" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/GUMiXqVvwHE" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

The songs throughout the set varied greatly in style.  There are folksy tunes like "Ladiesman" and others that seem like songs The Band would play, such as "You Can Do It Without Me".  Then others seem to have a country twang in the instrumentals.  Others then get more aggressive and grungy, like "Cemetery Sings", which got a very hard jam session in the middle as they performed that song at the end of their set.  It was eclectic, but showed the band's versatility.

Tillman sang about a wild variety of things in his songs.  His lyrics are very complex, and I doubt I would be able to make sense of them even if I had the lyrics.  I'm sure there are underlying messages there that I could have realized had I listened closely enough, but his songs are fun enough on the surface that I think you're fine either way.  You can take an introspective, soul-searching approach to his music or just bask in it.  Either way is fine. 

But what enhanced the musical performance and really made the show was Tillman's engaging personality between songs.  After pretty much every song, Tillman had some sort of story or thought to share with the crowd.  He was playful, skeptical, neurotic, and completely engaging. His personality just sucks you right in.  He shared a tale of the last time he was at the Mercury Lounge and only one person in the entire audience had payed to see his band play, while the rest came for other groups.  When someone shouted "That was awesome!" after a song, he dryly remarked, "Thank you for that.  We really appreciate the real-time feedback.  Comment culture!"  

Tillman shunned the regional humor and said that he wouldn't talk about the pizza here, no matter how much we wanted him to.  He told us he bought his most indulgent pair of shoes here in the city.  He told his bass player to give him a smooch, and then lamented on using the word smooch.  While introducing his bandmates, he wondered why he hadn't slapped the ass of his one guitarist more during the show.  He surmised they must be in a fight now.  Then they buried the fictional hatchet right then and there off mic to the delight of the crowd and the rest of the band.  And he waxed poetically on the use of the term "Very cool" when it comes to musicians with this hypothetical (and paraphrased) exchange that he says occurs almost every day:

Stranger: "Hey man, so what do you do?"
Tillman: "Well, I, uh, kind of do stuff with music."
Stranger: "Oh really? Like what kind of stuff, what do you play?"
Tillman: "Well, you know, a lot of stuff. I'm a songwriter, singer, you know."
Stranger: "Oh alright. My nephew plays guitar. So yeah, I know. You like Jimi Hendrix? You can't do music without liking Hendrix, right?"
Tillman: "Yeah, I like Jimi Hendrix I guess."
Stranger: "So what do you do, like perform and all that?"
Tillman: "Yeah, you know, we go on tour and travel and perform and whatnot."
Stranger: "Very cool. Very cool"

And Tillman told the little tale with amazing comedic timing and had the whole place laughing.  Everything about Tillman was just infectious and genuine, which made the show one of the most enjoyable concerts I can say I've experienced.  Joshua Tillman, you have a gift my friend.  

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