Joshua Tillman is a goof. He doesn’t want you to forget it either.
"Does anyone like Leonard Cohen?," asked the weathered-yet-reliably-puckish artist known as Father John Misty on Saturday night at First Avenue, just moments before launching into a bouncy, keytar-infused rendition of Cohen's mid-career staple "I'm Your Man."
It was an apropos choice for a cover given Tillman's well-reported adulation for Cohen. But, like Cohen, Tillman has never seemed comfortable (or interested in) taking himself too seriously despite being one of the most revered and honest songwriters of his generation.
Considering the age disparity between the two (33 vs. 80), the comparison might seem lofty and even premature (Tillman's latest “I Love You, Honeybear” is his sophomore release under FJM). But the influence is indisputable – on and off stage. Like Cohen, Tillman pens wordy and grossly confessional tunes with a sardonic slant, constantly alternating between the role of the lovesick poet and the debauched goofball.
"It's going to move really quickly tonight. It's going to get real intimate, real fast. A lot of shit about me is going to be flying in your face," he declared four songs into his set. Like the bulk of his stage banter Saturday, the line was uttered with Tillman’s signature comedic droll - so overtly sincere, so unabashedly earnest that it's comical.
Tillman wasn't lying, though, either. Accompanied by a tremendous six-piece backing band and a stellar light show, FJM got intimate – physically and emotionally – and they didn't squander anytime doing so. Opening with the album’s title-track, he powered through a 90-minute performance with equal amounts of grace, frivolity and cocksure swagger. Early on, the band revisited a handful of highlights from “Fear Fun,” such as the freewheelin’ “I’m Writing A Novel” and the sprawling “Only Son of a Ladies Man.” But for the most part, Saturday’s set was comprised of cuts off FJM’s latest – and for good reason, too.
From the electronic melancholy of “True Affection” to the spiteful sun-kissed twang of “Nothing Good Ever Happens ...” to the fiery propulsion of “Ideal Husband,” Tillman’s already evidenced his versatility as a songwriter on his latest record. But Saturday he proved that that creative elasticity stretches beyond the studio doors.
With moves like Mick Jagger, a face like Jim Morrison and the playful whimsy of a young Harry Nilsson, Tillman is one of the most dynamic and engaging performers of his genre. His relentless charisma coupled with his waggish personality makes him a thoroughly entertaining act to watch. He stumbles, trips and lumbers around the stage. He mutters half-baked joke premises between songs. He repeatedly wanders into the crowd with this sense of urgency. And it’s most likely an urgency born out of his genuine need to genuinely connect with his audience. Tillman doesn’t hide behind his guitar or his songs. He is a showman. And he bares it all (Not literally. I mean, fortunately he only LOOKS like Jim Morrison).
Following a rousing rendition of “Holy Shit,” an epic acoustic number Tillman wrote the day he married his wife, Emma (aka: Honey Bear for those of you not keeping up), the group exited. Moments later, he ambled back on to the stage for his opening encore and performed his much-discussed single “Bored in the U.S.A.”
Music critics have spilled endless amounts of ink waxing intellectual about FJM’s somber “satire” piece since it debuted on “Late Show With David Letterman” a little over year ago. It’s a lot of “serious talk” about a “serious song” (which happens to have a laugh track). But even during what was the most engrossing moment of the night, Tillman remained aloof. He chuckled, grinned and posed for photos in the seconds between devastating lines like “By this afternoon, I’ll live in debt / By tomorrow, be replaced by children.” At one point he even redirected the spotlight toward the balcony, illuminating a (visibly embarrassed) audience member.
Tillman, as both a performer and a songwriter, is a rare and invigorating change of pace for an independent musical landscape front loaded with irony and overly precious tripe. FJM’s live show is proof that indie rock hasn’t completely lost its sense of self (or humor). Tillman is a wake-up call: It's still possible to produce serious music without taking yourself too seriously.