Father John Misty, a hit on 2017’s local concert docket, returns to town tonight, bumping up to the Santa Barbara Bowl, with co-headliner Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.
Father John Misty and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
When: Tonight, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Santa Barbara Bowl, 1122 N. Milpas St.
Tickets: $35 to $65
Information: 962-7411, www.sbbowl.com
The artist currently known as Father John Misty, making his Santa Barbara Bowl debut tonight, is one sly fox, so to speak. Josh Tillman is the given name, but the restless artist has skillfully slithered through many personae in the past decade-and-change.
He entered the global music atmosphere as a singing drummer in the eminent, influential and harmony-enriched indie folk band Fleet Foxes but followed his own personal creative heart to transform into J. Tillman. We heard this version of Tilman, in a rather melancholic “shoe gazer” mode, in memorable brood-fest shows at the now sadly defunct Haley Street venue Muddy Waters.
Then came another personality change of sorts. Enter a new artist and attitude Father John Misty, with Mr. Tillman now bearing witty showman swagger, teasing touches of tent preacher excess (he grew up in a Pentecostal household and briefly entertained becoming a pastor). Musically, he was suddenly basking in almost Elton John-ish pop baggage, but lined with irony and indie inventiveness.
He played “Saturday Night Live,” chalked up hits of sorts—including “Real Love Baby,” “Nancy from Now On,” and the John Lennon/Yoko Ono-referential “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)”—and won over a packed house at the Arlington Theatre late in 2017, just before the release of “Pure Comedy.” The following year, he continued his upward roll with his latest album, “God’s Favorite Customer,” which went on to score highly in 2018’s year-end “Best Of” lists.
Tonight, we catch up with the good Father again, but this time in the “big house” in town, when he shares a potent, moody bill with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Mr. Isbell, whose too-rare local concert track record includes a potent show at the Marjorie Luke Theatre in 2013, in the “Sings like Hell” series, is a legend in his own right. After years spent in the Drive-By Truckers, the Alabama native launched a solo career in 2007, then teaming up with his band 400 Unit, in a career which has yielded both four Grammy awards and great critical cred.
As it happens, Mr. Tilman has included Mr. Isbell in his growing list of celebrity “name-checks” in his songs. In the teasingly self-referential (and true?) song “Mr. Tilman,” the first verse paints a picture of a woozy hotel encounter: “Mr. Tillman, good to see you again/
There’s a few outstanding charges just before we check you in/Let’s see here, you left your passport in the mini fridge/And the message with the desk says here the picture isn’t his/And oh, just a reminder about our policy/Don’t leave your mattress in the rain if you sleep on the balcony…Jason Isbell’s here as well/And he seemed a little worried about you.”
At the Arlington, the mustachioed showman Mr. Tilman played fast, cool, wordy and loose, bringing along some of his self-effacing, pop culture-deflating attitude. His witty lyrical tomfoolery reveals his skepticism about celebrity worship and shallow mass values, on songs such as “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt” (now abbreviated to just “Mr. Tilman”) and “Total Entertainment Forever,” with its infamous reference to virtual sex with Taylor Swift, “bedding Taylor Swift ever night inside the Oculus Rift.”
The “Swift rift” spilled into media coverage and created a buzz of controversy after he sang the song on “Saturday Night Live” in 2017. As he wryly explained in a Rolling Stone interview soon after the “SNL” moment, “who else’s name rhymes with Oculus Rift? I lost sleep over it because I knew what I was doing. I did all kinds of acrobatics in my head to find a way around it and change the lyric, but ultimately I had to sing what I wrote. Nothing I can do is going to please people who are determined to get bent out of shape about something. You have to be willfully ignorant of the fact the song is about more than that.
“Even explaining it here, we’re turning this interview into an article about that moment. Even if it’s not written that way, that’s the way it’ll get picked up. At some point we all need to grow up. Willful ignorance is what children do. I mean, Bob Dylan would reference actresses by name in a surreal way to make a point about the culture.”
Mr. Tilman’s particular genius, and for detractors, a source of his excess, involves a blend of mischief and earnest, seeming earnestness, and audacity, all compacted into gleaming, catchy pop song structures.
In 2017, amidst the storm of his Swift business, he told Pitchfork that “people have been saying to me since I was a kid, ‘I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not.’ Like how Eskimos have 12 words for ‘snow,’ I feel like I have 12 words for ‘funny’ in my mind…Anything you’re hearing is the product of a commit ment to beauty.”
His Arlington set also naturally hit upon two of his best and best-known songs–“Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” from his 2012 debut album, “Fear Fun,” (blessed with the oddball hooks “someone’s gotta’ help me dig” and “let the dead man sleep”) and the almost purely sweet pop song “I Love You, Honeybear,” the title track of his 2015 album.
He also couldn’t help but notice and comment on the friendly surrealism of the Arlington’s fake villa décor, nodding up to the balconies overhead and quipping “not a single Muppet came out of those Muppet houses.” We’ll see what observations he brings to the great outdoorsy ambience of the Bowl tonight.