Humor is a rare-ish thing in indie rock--what's funny about a solemn guy moping over an acoustic guitar? These people take their art seriously. But Father John Misty, aka former Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman, is a downright comedian and much, much more. He's a performance artist slipping between personas like a Hollywood character actor, all while being decisively Father John Misty. And his Saturday set at Austin City Limits was perhaps the day's most jolting.
As Father John Misty, Tillman is perhaps the closest thing indie music has to a Jim Morrison; after leaving Fleet Foxes, he relocated to Los Angeles from Seattle, reportedly eating magic mushrooms on a spirit quest road trip of sorts. Now, onstage, he's a different artist than the one found on his pre-Foxes output; he wiggles and worms like a peyote-spun shaman; he sways his hips non-stop in a sexy catcall, his jeans slung low on his wiry frame; he crawls, flops and rolls on the stage, slapping his hands on his face and intensely running his fingers through his hair like a frustrated poet. He's a book-ish Lizard King in Levi's cords and a button-up, sipping from a bottle of vodka the whole set.
But it's funny, a smirk and wink behind it all.
And Tillman doesn't just nod to Morrison; there are hints of Gram Parsons, Lenny Bruce and an over-expressive drama-club Frank Sinatra in his Father John Misty persona. His new album, Fear Fun, is a melting-pot of all of 'em. On "Nancy From Now On," a '70s AM soft rock ballad, he was all four onstage, jokingly crooning about "punching me in the face" and "calling me Nancy" in his velvety voice, shimmying with his finger out in a emotional gesture. On "I'm Writing a Novel," a rollicking country rocker, he offered a hilarious L.A.-centric scene of a hallucinating author, a black dog, a doctor and a monkey. It's absurd, and absurdly awesome.
Between songs in Zilker Park, Tillman would mumble jokes and trail off. Maybe it was the stage's sound, but he'd start a joke solid, then turn and mumble off and just stand there mugging at the crowd, which in itself was funny. Later he busted about his new favorite song, quoting a lyric from a Gin Blossoms song: "Waiting on a young man to die..." A quick Google search shows there's no such song.
On "Only Son of a Ladies Man," Tillman strutted and played to the ladies who collected up front to scream--the dude is an indie heartthrob. Then, on "Every Man Needs a Companion," another heartfelt '70s AM Gold ballad, Tillman sashayed up to the bassist--who looks like a Tom Petty/Kurt Cobain lovechild--and they sang directly to each other's faces, like lovers, holding back their laughs. Tillman came close enough for a smooch, then backed off, looked at the crowd and shrugged, the bassist in stitches.
They were having a hoot, and the four-piece backing band sounded sharp, nailing Fear Fun's kaleidoscopic sound, from trippy rock jams to sweeping country-noir with piano and slide guitar.
On "Every Man Needs a Companion," Tillman sang, "I never liked the name Joshua / I get tired of J." Sure, but as Father John Misty, Joshua "J." Tillman can be whoever he wants, all at the same time, while being 100 percent himself.