A year ago I didn’t even know that Father John Misty existed, but last night I found myself at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre (which, despite being a shithole, has its charms) to see the singer-songwriter perform before a packed house. Backed by a terrific five-piece band (and sometimes extra backup singer) the artist plowed through a powerful set that faithfully reproduced the lavish production of his most recent album, I Love You, Honeybear, and enhanced the sound of 2012’s Fear Fun.
A commanding presence on stage – tall, bold and limber – Father John Misty uttered virtually not a word between songs, but what he lacked in banter he made up for with his intensity, taking over center stage with passionate dips, angry kicks and desperate gesticulations. He knows how to get an audience excited. Midway through “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Cow” I witnessed what had to be the longest and highest launch of an acoustic guitar I’ve ever seen (the stagehand caught it – but just barely), and it was met with enthusiastic approval.
Like the production of his most recent album, the extensive layering and reverb of the live performance sometimes masked what is one of the singer’s greatest strengths – his witty, sardonic, and occasionally moving lyrics. Listening from the balcony, had I not already known songs like “I Love You, Honeybear” and “The Perfect Husband,” I wouldn’t have understood more than a few words of these performances. Perhaps it sounded clearer on the first level, though I distinctly remember Joe Jackson complaining about the acoustics of the Riv back in 2001. Judging from the peeling paint on the ceiling, I suspect the theater owners haven’t done much to improve the sound or anything else in the intervening decade and a half.
Most effective to me were the times that the band broke down and allowed Father John Misty to shine in a more intimate setting. “Bored In The USA” – a song that would have felt right at home on Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection – was the highlight for me, with the fans interjecting faithfully the canned laughter of the recording. First encore “I Went to the Store One Day” – the sparsest performance of the evening – was also terrific, along with “Holy Shit,” whose mellow first half was interrupted by such a frenzied finish that the downbeat jolted a listener to my left practically out of his seat.
These moments of potency were supported by the most impressive lighting I’ve ever seen at a small venue, especially the effective use of moody backlighting that bathed the stage with eerie reds that silhouetted the band, and the strobes used prominently in the frantic finale of “Perfect Husband.”
Aside from a cover of Nine Inch Nail's “Closer,” the 110 minute performance consisted entirely of tracks from Father John Misty’s two albums, ignoring the repertoire of the singer’s previous monikers. Surprisingly absent to me was the song that first introduced me to the artist: “The Night Josh Tillman Came to our Apt.,” and I wonder if he’s already grown tired of its overly mocking, cynical lyrics.
At thirty-five, the former drummer of Fleet Foxes has been recording and performing for a hell of a long time, reaching his recent success a little late in life. It was worth the wait. Here’s hoping he hangs in there for a while and releases a few more gems along the way.