Father John Misty doesn’t do exhilarating. Not lately, anyway; his two most recent albums, “Pure Comedy” and this year’s “God’s Favorite Customer,” are despairing enough in their themes that whoever manufactured the LP versions should’ve been warned against cutting the edges of the vinyl too sharply. So why did a Hollywood Bowl show Sunday that leaned heavily on those two downers feel so weirdly euphoric?
Blame it on the Bowl’s ready supply of vino, or pin it on the cathartic power of putting a name to those things that ail us, something for which Misty has a rather epic gift, with an ear for rich melodicism to go along with the blunt talk. Also, first-rate rock orchestration may be underrated as a cure for depression, too.
The Hollywood Bowl is frequently the setting for rockers and pop stars to perform in tandem with the resident orchestra, but very few take the BYOB approach to filling out the bleachers. Misty didn’t bring a Philharmonic-sized complement to the Bowl Sunday, but what he did have in tow sounded fuller and lusher than size alone would indicate — in this case, a string sextet and a couple or more brass players (the tight grouping and backlit mood lighting made it difficult to do an exact count) in addition to his six-man ensemble. It made some sense that Misty would tour with strings and brass last year, at least if the royalties from those Beyoncé and Gaga co-writes gave him the luxury of handling the extra overhead. He was touring behind “Pure Comedy,” an album that used a lot of lush orchestration to heighten or offset its bleak existentialism. But the new “Customer” is a back-to-basics collection that barely has any strings at all, so it seemed likely his 2018 tour would follow suit. Yet there are all those players again, jumping in on all the new and old material, lending extra beauty where there was rock austerity before.
The added strings weren’t the only arrangement tweaks to the six new numbers in the 20-song set. Occasionally there were more raucous additional touches, too, like the unexpected guitar solo that gave “Mr. Tillman” some raw power before the whistling coda kicked in. Sometimes the extra passion came in the form of a more desperate vocal delivery, as at the end of the new album’s kickoff number, “Hangout at the Gallows,” when he full-on yowled the closing refrain: “What’s your politics? What’s your rel-ih-ih-gen?” — just two of the topics he’s never bashful about bringing up around the dinner table, or spindle.
The more players Misty has on stage, the less likely he is to talk up a storm, which, given his raconteur skills, is missed a bit (although probably not by all). Sometimes, a very short interjection said a lot. “It gets worse,” Misty joked midway through the title track from “Pure Comedy,” a super-sized rant or lament in which pretty much anything that can go wrong with all of humanity or the universe does. In the middle of an older choice, “Bored in the USA,” he interjected with another bemused aside — “Good stuff!” — after seeming surprised by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to the lines: “By this afternoon, I’ll live in debt / By tomorrow, be replaced by children.”
His self-deprecation took on a more gentlemanly tone when he complimented his equally worthy opening act, Gillian Welch, who, with her partner David Rawlings, has been known to front amphitheaters on her own, and was nearly billed as a co-headliner for this KCRW-sponsored show. (The level of audience chatter during Welch’s and Rawlings’ acoustic duo set made it clear that this was not her crowd, though.) “When I used to dream of sharing a marquee with Gillian Welch,” he said near show’s end, “my name was a lot less stupid.” (That was a reference, of course, to the bygone years when Misty released less interesting and provocative albums under his given name, Josh Tillman.)
Wearing an all-white suit that seemed to be one giant clerical collar, Misty struck a series of moves on stage that sometimes had the feel of rock-star poses, and sometimes felt a little awkward – or a mixture of both, maybe? Certainly no performer has ever crossed his legs this much on stage before while remaining in a full standing position. There’s a cockiness to his anger at all things unjust about the universe that looks casual at first, then crosses over to anger, once he starts brandishing the mic stand over his head while the strobes go off. Misty sometimes stood in silhouette as the rear screen lit up a brilliant blue or orange, deliberately overwhelming him as well as the band. Other times he was lit up like a flashlight beam at center stage. The screen often switched to animations that were on the unsettling side, like subtler versions of old Pink Floyd tour toons. “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” counted as more or less in the frightening category, as a nice, blue globe lit up with fire and annihilation, only to return to a more peaceful monochrome as Misty sang lyrics about the return of an ice age to the earth someday. (As he might say: It gets worse! Good stuff!)
It wasn’t all about global nihilism. It may be good or bad news that Misty has personalized his anxiety on his latest effort, and the songs he performed from “God’s Favorite Customer” — (very) arguably his best effort to date — localize his despondency, which now has to do with losing or letting go of love, a subject that manages not to be more mundane in his hands. When he sat at the piano for the Elton-esque “Dumb Enough to Try,” there was an earnest sweetness to his sadness that felt like a necessary corrective to the rant-ier stuff like “Pure Comedy.” That’s one of the new effort’s simple, most down-to-earth and affecting standouts. Another is the boldly titled “Please Don’t Die,” which, with its pleasant but pleading melody, seems to be a desperate plea from a loved one not to stupidly exit this life on a bender. Instead of sinister animations in the background, there were colorful line drawings of a succession of blooming flowers, as if the loving, admonitory words were actually taking effect on the downcast singer. It managed to be something you don’t always think of being a significant part of Misty’s wheelhouse: heart-warming.
Welch and Rawlings preceded this with 45 minutes of songs from her albums (and one from one of his), material that puts a little more literary distance between the creators and their material than Misty is prone to, but ends up feeling emotional just the same. Their stage setup is as minimalist as Misty’s was expansive — a set of banjos and acoustic guitars, a rug, and a string of outdoor bulbs at the front lip of the rug. That allowed Welch to make a joke about “kicking out the footlights” at the conclusion of “Six White Horses,” which had her actually clogging while Rawlings strummed. Their performance wrapped up with a rendition of the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away,” which, however figuratively intended, added a note of literal rapture as a kind of equal-time counterpoint to the godless musings about to follow.