A bared svelte chest and loose lips used to be trademarks of Father John Misty's concerts, but the heavily bearded and grandly gyrating indie-rock shaman/showman kept things buttoned up — on several fronts — Saturday night at Northrop auditorium.
The real-life Josh Tillman, 34, meant business in his first-ever Twin Cities theater performance. Saturday's set followed a steady stream of First Avenue gigs and outdoor dates that sometimes got a little out of hand with his off-the-cuff banter. Like that one time the cosmic, coy indie-rock bard ranted against fast-food joints and went off on a woman who yelled for him to take off his already wide-open shirt at First Ave in 2013.
By contrast, Tillman's chest stayed under wraps and his performance remained on a precise course as he barraged the sold-out crowd with 19 songs in 90 minutes. Tillman didn't even talk to the audience until the last 15 minutes, and then it was just a quick quip about his attire.
"Lurking around a college campus in a black suit is kind of a normal Saturday night for me," he joked.
Tillman did take time to tell the 2,700 seated fans to stand up a few bars into the opener, "Everyman Needs a Companion," but they probably would have done so anyway with the second song, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings."
Although its fiery energy was stifled a bit in the auditorium setting, "Hollywood Forever" nonetheless was played with an impressive intensity and exactness that would be matched later in the night's rockiest/heaviest numbers, including a twanged-up "I'm Writing a Novel" and the manically delivered finale, "Ideal Husband."
Even as Tillman and his six-piece band worked their way through some of the more balladic and intimate songs from last year's candidly romantic sophomore album "I Love You, Honeybear," the audience on the main floor of the auditorium never used the cushy new seats. Wisely, all but two of "Honeybear's" 11 tracks were played Saturday. The record's ornate, layered elegance and sometimes grandiose drama nicely matched Northrop's refined acoustics and theatrical facade.
"Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)" billowed beautifully though the auditorium, with Tillman's voice convincingly edging into Roy Orbison territory. Appropriately, the moody flourishes of "True Affection" came with a deep-purple lighting backdrop. "Bored in the USA" was most stunning of all, especially when the audience — about half of them college-aged — applauded to the line, "They gave me a useless education."
Tillman is still a bit of a freshman as theater-level rock acts go, with only two albums to his made-up name. A few tunes still felt like filler, including "This Is Sally Hatchet" and "Now I'm Learning to Love the War," although the latter's lines about vinyl-LP production coincided well with Record Store Day.
Mr. Misty also threw in a rather cleverly chosen cover song to help flesh out the encore, Nine Inch Nails' "Closer," whose animalistic sexuality matched the lustful tone of the "Honeybear" material. He and the band failed to put their own unique spin on the song, but at least they played it straight, without any feebly ironic spin. It sure beat the ironic stage banter that used to round out Tillman's shows.