Father John Misty
Kings Theatre, Brooklyn, NY
May 10, 2017
If there’s a single mantra running through everything Father John Misty does, particularly on this tour in support of his third and latest album, “Pure Comedy,” it’s excess in moderation.
It’s in his dozen-odd-piece backing band, which even has a genuine musical director conducting the string quartet, but never delivers more than the song requires. It’s in the dazzling light show, centered around a huge screen upon which atmospheric scenes are projected: four rows of lights above the stage, a dozen spotlights at head level, and still another row of lights at floor level — so when they want to blow your mind, they do, but more often it’s calm, animated landscapes and vivid, ambient colors. And finally, it’s in the songs and the man at the center of it all, both of which generally start quietly and gradually build and build and build before peaking with comically overblown crescendos — before pulling back again to hear-a-pin-drop stillness, the crowd holding its breath waiting for the next verse or chord. Despite the oversized band and stage and conceits, much of the music and the show consists of quiet passages and dramatic pauses.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting for such a show than Brooklyn’s gloriously renovated Kings Theatre, deep in the heart of Flatbush. The almost comically ornate 3,200-seat movie theatre opened on the eve of the Great Depression in September 1929 and fell into ruin along with much of New York City in the 1970s, but has been meticulously restored, down to the lush carpets, maroon curtains, art-deco chandeliers and borderline-garish gold trim embellishing virtually every corner. It reopened, fittingly enough, with Diana Ross’s first-ever Brooklyn concert in 2015.
“So this used to be a movie theater?” Father John, aka Josh Tillman, said during a quiet moment in the middle of the set. “Can you imagine seeing a prohibition-era ‘Avengers’ movie in here?” And fittingly, the 20-song, two-hour-ish set was paced for cinematic impact. It opened powerfully with the first half of “Pure Comedy” performed almost in sequence, leading with the title track and “Total Entertainment Forever,” the spotlights swooping into the venue’s high ceilings and reflecting off of the gold trim; the backdrop alternating from darkness to the cosmos to spaghetti-western mountain scenes. The music followed similar peaks and valleys, with Tillman, clad as usual in tight pants, pointy boots, a white shirt and oversized black suit jacket (it looks like he’s growing back his beard, a relief after his several weeks sporting a ridiculous molest-stache), generally planted behind the mic, strumming a succession of Martin acoustics and singing in his commanding, underrated voice.
But at strategic moments the spirit would overtake him, he’d toss the guitar to a roadie and lurch into his crazed-preacher shtick, staggering across the stage in deliberately ludicrous loose-limbed gyrations, raising his arms skyward like a demented shaman conjuring magic from a cauldron, grinding his hips in an absurd parody of rock-god poses. He’s mesmerizing and preposterous at the same time, and that’s the idea. You genuinely never know what he’s going to do next, whether he’ll break down the barrier between artist and audience and plunge into the crowd (which we’ve also seen him do, but not tonight), collapse into a heap, or cue the band to bring it down and pick up his Martin.
And that is the great contradiction of Father John Misty. He’s the greatest rock star of his generation but can’t bring himself to embrace it except in jest. He’s got the charisma, the voice, the songs and the moves, and for evidence just dredge up his performance of “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” at Coachella last month. Completely backlit with red lights, he straps on an electric guitar (the only time in the set he plays one) and is such a classic rock star that you can’t help but think if he’d only serve up one full album of songs like this he’d singlehandedly jolt rock and roll out of its decades-long doldrums. And yet tonight he’d noticeably slowed down the song’s tempo, so much that the effect was lost — as if he’d caught himself falling off the wagon at Coachella and is now exercising discipline. He ended the usually show-stopping song abruptly, as if embarrassed.
Instead, we get the arguably more interesting spectacle of a deeply charismatic artist swooning around the stage like a bastard combination of Nick Cave and Iggy Pop, leading a band that includes a string quartet through songs of pop-orchestral grandiosity in a style pioneered by flawed geniuses like Nilsson and Jimmy Webb and Lee Hazelwood. It’s oddly fitting for an artist famed for baffling and hilarious lyrics like “Darling, I love you as you are when you’re alone” and the now-infamous “Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift.”
The deeply reverent crowd loved all of it, and after the long encore wound down, Tillman and the band took a slow exit from the stage as the house lights came up and the audience filtered out slowly, as if wanting to be sure it didn’t miss anything that might come next.