Context is pretty damn important when it comes to the things Josh Tillman says. So don’t be too startled when his “Microshow” for 89.3 the Current -- which he recorded at Icehouse in Minneapolis on Tuesday afternoon -- comes on the airwaves in a couple weeks with opening comments about “chewing your French fries too hard” and “thoughts about murdering your parents.”
“This bit will seem very weird to listeners of the Current,” the singer/songwriter better known as Father John Misty realized, after he began his 10-song acoustic performance by comically riffing on comments Current morning-show co-host Jill Riley made in her (off-air) introduction of him.
In this one rare instance, Tillman cut short his whimsical thoughts and got down to business. “Anyway… folk-rock,” he nonchalantly declared, launching into the title track of his new album, “Pure Comedy.”
Tuesday’s invite-only concert for 200 or so listeners was far and away the biggest snag yet for the Current’s “Microshow” series. Tillman and his piano player flew up on a day off after a show in Chicago a night earlier. Even FJM naysayers know all too well how much heavy rotation the Current has given his music going back to 2012’s debut “Fear Fun,” so Tuesday's set seemed like due payback.
But it also seemed like Tillman was seeking his own reward facing a crowd who knows him well, since he mostly stuck to songs off the challenging new album. He admitted at one point the record has been “polarizing.” He even thanked a fan who requested a song from the LP; as opposed to all the other requests he turned down, including “The Ideal Husband” (which he said doesn’t come off well unplugged), “Chateau Lobby #4” (“It’s not a moment in my life I like to go back to,” he said) and “Free Bird” (really?!).
But first, Tillman steadily rolled through seven of the new songs and let the sardonic, contemplative, protracted lyrics in them speak for themselves. He threw in a long, quiet pause for dramatic effect following the Bible-lambasting lines in “Pure Comedy” (“They get terribly upset when you question their sacred texts / Written by woman-hating epileptics”). After reminding us how narcissistic we all are in “The Memo,” he quipped, “Your applause is good, because it will keep the people listening to this in the car from driving off the road.”
Like the album itself, the rollout of the “Pure Comedy” material on Tuesday was simply a bit too much – too many long, plodding piano ballads one after one another, and too many flippant one-liners about the modern woes of mankind. Even John Lennon lightened up the similarly pensive piano balladry of the “Imagine” album with “Oh Yoko!” Presumably (or hopefully), Tillman will break up all that gray matter more when he returns to town Aug. 19 to perform with his full band outside Surly Brewing. Or else he very well could have a surly crowd on his hand.
The one big benefit of catching FJM in an intimate, stripped-down configuration was hearing his unabashedly ornamental, undeniably elegant vocals out front and center. Even more than last year’s stirring Northrop show, his voice hung over the room like a big, bejeweled chandelier mesmerizing the crowd, particularly in the gushing ode “I Love You, Honeybear” and the falsetto-spiked new single “Ballad of the Dying Man.” No context or translation will be needed when those tunes are played back over the airwaves.
Father John Misty’s “Microshow” will air June 5 at noon on 89.3 the Current, audible over the web at thecurrent.org.