Fancy footwork, mic-twirling, spastic movements, primal screams and Jim Morrison-esque theatrics aren’t what are typically seen at a concert of an artist rooted in folk music. Sunday night at the Pabst Theater, however, Father John Misty came back to Milwaukee for the second time in as many years with the commanding presence and swagger of a full-fledged rock star. Even to the hippest of music fans, the name Josh, or J. Tillman probably didn’t mean much besides possibly recognizing him as the drummer for Fleet Foxes for a few years, including their sophomore album Helplessness Blues. Despite releasing a consistent stream of solo albums as J. Tillman since 2003, it wasn’t until a psilocybin-influenced road trip of self-discovery that he found his new voice. That new voice manifested into Father John Misty, the moniker Tillman has been recording and touring as since 2012 to critical acclaim.
Beginning his Sunday in Milwaukee at a studio session at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s studio, Father John Misty gave an insightful interview and performed three acoustic songs off his latest album, I Love You, Honeybear, including the title track, “Bored In The USA,” and “Chateau Lobby #4,” along with a brand new track showcasing his departure from the personal, and many times gritty, nature of his last two records to more of an outside-looking-in mentality. While this acoustic radio session gave a better lyrical look into the complexity of love, both the good and bad, it was his Pabst Theater show Sunday night that served to show that even through the love, despair, ugliness, and beauty, that kicking it all in the teeth with a straight-up rock show makes everything better.
The jangly indie-pop of opener “Springtime Carnivore,” fronted by Greta Morgan (formerly of The Hush Sound and Gold Motel) got the sold out crowd’s blood pumping, but when it was time for Father John Misty to take the stage, all else was forgotten for the next 90 minutes as he put on one of the best shows Milwaukee has seen all year. From the moment he emerged, along with an impressive backing band that helped create the raucous and many times psychedelic atmosphere, Tillman was transformed into Father John Misty. Taking cues from the church services of his evangelical upbringing, he took to his pulpit and some otherworldly spirit seemed to take over. It was a trip through his self-described “demented-psyche” that ripped through 19 songs with about an even split between his debut album, Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear.
Getting right down to the crowd in the pit during his second time opening a show with “I Love You, Honeybear” that day, he gripped the audience’s attention that didn’t cease until the last note of his performance. He used his mic-stand as a prop throughout his set, even breaking it during the heavily distorted and chaotic “The Ideal Husband.” Tillman even gave a little spot light dance breakdown during “True Affection” to showcase his sultry moves. The crying guitars complimented the soulful despair of “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me,” and there was even room for a drum solo in the bar room parlor jam, “I’m Writing A Novel.”
His sarcastic and oft-humorous banter between songs just proved that he knows his audience and what they want to hear. From making light of has dancing—likening it to a “crucified Gumby dance”—to a proclamation that the entire set “has been manicured to ensure ultimate panty moisture,” Father John Misty owned the Pabst Theater for an hour and a half. Short and sweet it was, the encore began with crowd favorite “Bored In The USA,” and it was the night’s closer that left jaws and the floor and brains melted. Announcing that he had a cover to share, the crowd went into frenzy when the initial chords of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” started to play. Channeling Kurt Cobain, Tillman screaming, contorted and gave every last bit of energy he could muster up before issuing a thank you and saying goodnight. It was the perfect conclusion to a set that assured anyone foolish enough to doubt it that, even though it took him a while to find it, Father John Misty is what J. Tillman always strived to be. And Milwaukee certainly thanked him for it.
I Love You, Honeybear
Only Son Of A Ladiesman
When You’re Smiling And Astride Me
The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment
I’m Writing A Novel
Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2
Chateau Lobby #4
Nancy From Now On
Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Cow
This Is Sally Hatchet
The Ideal Husband
Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings
Funtimes IN Babylon
Now I’m Learning To Love The War