Father John Misty at SummerStage / Afterword
David Burke, Contributing Writer, Foreword / Afterword, August 6, 2015
Father John Misty played Central Park’s SummerStage this past Wednesday night at Rumsey Playfield for a crowd of roughly two thousand. The space, designated for SummerStage concerts during the program’s run from late May to early October, was appropriately converted from its usual multipurpose field to a merch and vendor strewn concert pavilion. I paid $22 for a biodegradable pint of City Winery malbec and battled through the ATM lines to get to the west side of the stage as Angel Olsen began to wrap her set, which was promising, and while I don’t know her, I’m going to get to.
The general admission event was pretty standard, pairs and small groups vied for real estate in the changeover as some broke off to freshen up their beverages, and the early eager tried to defend their blanket-claimed sitting spaces against the backfill of a crowd that was surprisingly non-hipster and dare I say it, non-cool, despite Father John Misty’s sound, which I thought was decidedly niche. Guess not.
Father John Misty took the stage with the sun still above the horizon on a lovely midsummer evening. His band, all dressed like him in dark suits and white shirts assumed their positions before a simple red backdrop and an ironic neon sign that said “no photography” in script inside a heart shaped frame. From off stage right, a bearded and sunglassed character ran forward and grabbed the mic stand twirling it behind his head and sliding into his 2015 LP’s title song, I Love You Honeybear to a vigorous affirmation from the crowd. Establishing his performance style early, Father John Misty, alternately twirled his microphone and brandished his mic stand, channeling his inner Freddie Mercury, and gyrated in pop diva mimicry, mounting his bass drum and gesturing to the crowd and the band. He played three songs from his latest LP, each of which stood to establish his various sound before he addressing the crowd. Strange Encounter offered a rockier side of his sound and True Affection, a favorite of mine, tasted a little more electro-dance.
“With this next song,” he said, bantering with the crowd for the first time, “I’m going to join the proud lineage of men who’ve been coming to this park at night to expose themselves to strangers.” And that sums up the evening. On stage, Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty was all innuendo and androgynous flirt, ironic and flashy, a bit self-loathing and a lot self-aware, and above all, consistent. He played on, covering most of his latest record and offering a few from 2012’s Fear Fun as well. He took a stage dive, and then made an obvious production of his struggle to get back on stage. He pulled a sexy cabaret style piano-top ballad on the edge of the stage. At one point he tore off his acoustic guitar mid-song and hurled it more that half the length of the stage at, not to, a stagehand who managed to catch it unbroken. It was great. The show and the showman hand in hand with the calamitous lyrics of his music.
Father John Misty is an artist. Musician, sure, but what I witnessed Wednesday night was more of an exhibition than a concert. The couples making out during The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt., the chatter that I heard while Tillman sang “I hate that soulful affectation white girls put on,” and the eager crowd participation in the laugh track portion of Bored in the USA all seemed to serve as some sort of real life recreation of I Love You Honeybear’s world of self-important characters, missed meaning and dwindling significance in an underwhelming modern context.
But to say that Father John Misty’s act is obvious or hackneyed would do it a serious disservice. The guy can sing. He has a beautiful voice and a solid band, and he’s a worthy storyteller – a distinction that elevates him, especially relative to his contemporaries. And it wasn’t all dark irony and fatalism, either. His first encore song, I Went to The Store One Day, was solo and acoustic to a surprisingly quiet crowd that for the first time in the evening suggested to me that they got more than I had initially given them credit for. It was beautiful and warm, despite the context, and in a strange way, it warmed me, too. He dedicated his final encore song, Everyman Needs a Companion, another selection from Fear Fun, to his drummer’s baby daughter, who was born the just night before – a bit of a country strum and hum with vocal accompaniment a twangy reverb on Tillman’s electric guitar. It was ecumenical send-off for the masses akin to the benediction at the end of a sermon. I couldn’t help but think that Tillman’s training in a Pentecostal church school had come to bear here, in his benediction, as in his modern fire and brimstone that is the heart of his lyrical construct.
But if there’s one thing that Father John Misty is above all, he’s modern. He took a selfie video early in the set then held up the band and the crowd while he replayed it to himself, checking to see if he “got it.” He did. He also took time to thank SummerStage’s corporate sponsor, Capital One. “Did anyone max out a Capital One credit card to come here?” he quipped. It was a good show, and though I felt like I’d been to the theatre rather than a concert, I was okay with it.