It is now five years since Josh Tillman abandoned his own name and reputation as drummer for indie-folk band Fleet Foxes, in favour of a solo career under the moniker Father John Misty. These five years have elicited three critically acclaimed albums and two mammoth worldwide tours, the most recent of which sees Tillman bringing his brass band-backed melodic ballads to Manchester’s O2 Apollo. The theatre is packed, with a high proportion of the crowd appearing to be student-aged, and there are still rafts of people entering through the venue’s art deco façade until minutes before Father John Misty punctually takes to the stage at 9pm.
The show begins with ‘Pure Comedy’, the titular song from this year’s third album, and Misty saunters up to the microphone stand, sans guitar, to sing the opening verse in a manner that slightly resembles a cocky X Factor auditionee. The audience meet Tillman’s every move with cheers and his signature acoustic guitar is strapped back on for the next three songs. By the conclusion of ‘Ballad of the Dying Man’ the opening four songs of the recent album have been performed in sequence, and attendees who have turned up hoping to hear some favourite’s from 2015’s seminal I Love You Honeybear may have become agitated. Any worries are dispelled by the opening chords of ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’, and Tillman’s Maryland accent finally has a Mancunian one to compete with, sending his lyrics back to him with word-perfect accuracy.
All the Father John Misty showmanship that we’ve come to expect is on display – the Elvis hips, the dancing that threatens to devolve into dad-dancing, the guitar that is swung around his person like a hula-hoop and which at one point is nonchalantly thrown through the air with a flick of the wrist to a stagehand, who fumbles to catch it without quite the same air of cool. All of these are roared on by an adoring audience, particularly in the front rows, yet aside from this it is not a particularly charismatic frontman performance. Tillman does not actually address the audience directly until a good half hour into his set, and even then it is only to mumble something about how he has “truly nothing to say.” Later he invites the crowd to “give it up for the band”, but aside from these remarks there is no attempt to play up to the crowd. For some this may be refreshing, although a little more audience interaction could’ve helped break up the succession of songs: at times the generally high levels of energy were allowed, briefly, to dip. Still, when the collection of songs and the musicianship from all involved are as accomplished as this, it is difficult to find much fault with the frontmanship, especially when Father John Misty very much looks and sounds the part.
The standout moments of the night come when the formula is altered slightly. For ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’, the big screen displays the song’s music video: suddenly there are two versions of Father John Misty onscreen, a self-aware nod to the blurred lines between Tillman and his alter-ego. A rendition of ‘Bored In The U.S.A’ is given added resonance by a canned laughter track during the final chorus, an effect which works far better in the Apollo’s open theatre than it does through headphones on the album track. For ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’ the acoustic guitar is replaced by an electric for the first time, and its caustic tone combined with pulsing kick drum whilst Tillman sings of how he is “unsure of so many things” stands as one of the highlights of the night. Fittingly for a show on Bonfire Night, the display concludes with a grand finale; starting with a crooning singalong to ‘I Love You Honeybear’, followed by the exceedingly popular ‘Real Love Baby’. Father John Misty ends his show with a boisterous version of ‘Ideal Husband’, which sees him vault the barrier and take his place in the crowd. 2017 has been the year in which Josh Tillman and his stage creation have ascended to venues the size of Manchester’s Apollo; on tonight’s evidence, he is not the slightest bit out of place.
Listen to Pure Comedy by Father John Misty on Spotify