You’d maybe have to go back to late-’70s Kiss and Cheap Trick concerts for the last time one act name-checked the other every night on tour together. Unlike the lyric in “Surrender,” though, Father John Misty’s line about his co-headliner Friday at the Armory in Minneapolis carried a lot of weight and meaning.
“Jason Isbell’s here as well, and he seems to be a little worried about you,” the Los Angeles folk-rock balladeer also known as Josh Tillman sang a few songs into Friday’s last of three stunning sets, counting opener Jade Bird’s.
The self-inflictive tune in question, “Mr. Tillman,” recounts an especially debaucherous time in Mr. Misty’s personal life. It’s a topic the Alabamian country-rocker Isbell has also covered well in song since triumphantly kicking his bad habits around 2013.
Whether or not there’s still reason to worry about Tillman — his newest songs were even darker Friday — he and Isbell made for kindred spirits as they dramatically sang about their rocky lives with their rock-solid bands at the nearly sold-out Armory, part of a monthlong joint tour.
Though relatively unalike musically, the two headliners have followed similar trajectories over the past decade. Each came out of the shadows of two cult-adored bands to become acclaimed solo acts (Fleet Foxes in Tillman’s case, the Drive-by Truckers for Isbell) . Locally, they earned heavy 89.3 the Current airplay and strong receptions at First Avenue and Northrop Auditorium, which led to them serving as headliners last summer for the competing Rock the Garden (Tillman) and Basilica Block Party (Isbell).
Playing the middle slot Friday -- they're switching off -- Isbell went straight into psychosis/self-help territory with his opening tune “Anxiety.” It was clear right away this was one show well-suited for a dark, loud, big room instead of a breezy outdoor venue.
“Even with my lover sleeping close to me, I’m wide awake and in pain,” he sang over fiery Neil Young-like guitar work.
Isbell’s wife and bandmate Amanda Shires wasn’t at this show — she had her own gig to play in Houston — but the rest of his long-tenured group the 400 Unit anchored and buoyed the set as much as ever.
They blazed through a string of his stormiest recent tunes early on, also including “24 Frames” and “White Man’s World (the latter’s feminist bend still showed Shires’ imprint). From there, things quieted down but hardly lightened up.
Isbell delivered an all-acoustic “Elephants” — a stark account of a friend’s losing bout with cancer — then “Cover Me Up,” which chronicles his own near-demise to addictions. At least the latter one had a happy ending. So did this set, as the band went full-tilt through the blues-era Fleetwood Mac cover “Oh Well” and nailed Isbell's Truckers classic “Outfit.”
He lightened the mood with a few wisecracks, too, including this assessment of his modest new crop of facial hair: “I’ve got a $14 beard; Tillman’s got a $1,200 beard.” And his introduction to “Maybe It’s Time,” which he wrote for Bradley Cooper to sing in the remake of “A Star Is Born”: “It must be a science fiction movie, because in the movie this song’s a hit.”
Usually also full of quips, Tillman was far from a cutup this time out.
“I’m treading water as I bleed to death,” he sang in the opener “Hangout at the Gallows,” then went head-on into the gloomy hookup song “Date Night” and dirge-like rocker “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.”
He’s been funnier in prior local gigs, but Tillman may never have been more focused and in sync with his band. Their steamy start gave way to more softly elegant and elaborately arranged tunes such as “Ballad of a Dying Man” and “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of All,” the latter from last year’s dire-sounding LP “God’s Favorite Customer.”
A few ironic fan faves such as “Bored in the USA” were left off the set list, and the more straight-ahead, contemplative gut-punchers “Ballad of the Dying Man” and “Real Love Baby” defined the performance — all rendered gorgeously by his impressive, sometimes even grandiose eight-member band.
No need to worry. In the end, Mr. Tillman appeared to be doing just fine.
Father John Misty's Armory set list:
- 1. Hangout at the Gallows
- 2. Date Night
- 3. Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
- 4. Mr. Tillman
- 5. Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All
- 6. Total Entertainment Forever
- 7. Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution
- 8. Ballad of the Dying Man
- 9. Nancy From Now On
- 10. Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)
- 11. Please Don't Die
- 12. The Palace
- 13. Real Love Baby
- 14. Time Makes Fools of Us All
- 15. God's Favorite Customer
- 16. Pure Comedy
- 17. I Love You, Honeybear
- 18. Encore: New song (purportedly rejected from “A Star Is Born”)
- 19. I'm Writing a Novel
Jason Isbell's list
- 1. Anxiety
- 2. 24 Frames
- 3. White Man's World
- 4. Hope the High Road
- 5. Last of My Kind
- 6. Elephant
- 7. Alabama Pines
- 8. Flying Over Water
- 9. Cover Me Up
- 10. Something More Than Free
- 11. Outfit
- 12. Maybe It's Time
- 13. Oh Well (Fleetwood Mac cover)
- 14. If We Were Vampires