Indie bellower Joshua Tillman was a bit of a hot mess his first time as a First Ave headliner.
Forget the already wide spectrum of comparisons to Gram Parsons, Harry Nilsson and Neil Young earned by Los Angeles singer/songwriter Father John Misty during his steady rise to indie fame over the past year, and add three new ones to the mix: Donny Osmond, Ricky Gervais and Tom Jones.
One of the top artists on 89.3 the Current and a key act at the upcoming Basilica Block Party, the lanky and bearded cosmic-twang folk-rocker made his debut as a First Avenue headliner Tuesday night, and his presence at times seemed oddball and disparate. A few times, he was also brilliant.
The real-life Joshua Tillman — who previously drummed and sang harmony with Seattle’s über-sincere folk band Fleet Foxes for four of his 32 years — came off like the star of an Osmonds-like ’70s variety show early in the sold-out, 80-minute concert. Performing in front of a psychedelic rainbow backdrop and disco balls, he walked out with a half-unbuttoned collared shirt and proceeded to gaudily sway his hips and gesture grandiosely with his hands through the opening tunes “Funtime in Babylon” and “Only Son of the Ladiesman.”
As with much of FJM’s live act, it’s hard to tell if Tillman was kidding or not. He has long displayed a sharp, sardonic wit between songs, going back to Fleet Foxes gigs. On Tuesday, though, his humor turned sour and agitated in a Gervais sort of way, perhaps a side effect of all the nonstop touring since the release of his Sub Pop debut, “Fear Fun,” in April 2012.
At one point, he griped about American highways being overloaded with hamburger joints. He even got a bit antagonistic trying to laugh off inane audience banter, like when one fan yelled out “Freebird!” (fair enough on Tillman’s part). Some women also repeatedly requested he take off his shirt like some sort of indie-folk Jones (fair enough on their part; the dude’s shirt was half-open, after all, and he has bare-chested publicity photos).
“Yell something no one has ever yelled at a concert before, and you’ll be my [expletive] hero,” he urged in frustration.
That calamitous vibe spilled over into the pre-encore finale “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” which sagged under a heavy, near-metallic sonic weight. The encore fizzled, too, with a by-the-numbers cover of the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and the “Fear Fun” outtake “I Love You, Honeybear” — set list filler that he could have avoided had he opted to play songs from previous albums issued under his less rocky-starry moniker J. Tillman. What, would that have been out of character?
All these distractions did not spoil the high points of the concert, though. First and foremost, “I’m Writing a Novel” soared four songs into the set with the Flying Burritos-like, two-stepping guitar twang of his backing quintet, minus the sashay shtick.
That same Bakersfield-meets-Laurel Canyon vibe carried over later in the set during “Tee Pees 1-22” and the biblical “Everyman Needs a Companion,” both of which proved how well Tillman can inflect Roy Orbison-ian drama in his willowy but husky voice. But let’s not go too far with the comparisons.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib
See the set list at startribune.com/artcetera.