An Unholy Obsession: Father John Misty

Peter Walsh enjoyed a divine performance.

Father John Misty

Father John Misty

Sydney Opera House Concert Hall

December 7, 2015

Father John Misty’s 2015 was something of a victory lap. His second studio album, I Love You, Honeybear, was broadly adored and his ensuing tour schedule offered him the opportunity to gyrate, croon, and stand on drum kits internationally.[1]

Before I continue, I must admit an obsession: over the course of 2015, I listened to Tillman’s “True Affection” 324 times.

Portrait of a madman.
Portrait of a madman.

In spite of this rampant devotion at the shrine of Josh Tillman, I consider myself an objective reviewer and as someone slightly lukewarm on the rest of his oeuvre, I can say he rocked the joint. From minute one, he slid across the stage—all slithery wriggle in a narrow suit that only accentuated his narrowness—with such energy that when it came time for him to take a break, the audience had imbibed his exhaustion as well.

He’s a consummate showman, snatching smartphones from audience members and recording close-up videos of him singing as he goes (in one instance, he even paused the song, re-wound, and started again, to make sure he captured his good side). It’s a refreshing cynicism, which may sound oxymoronic, but Tillman really does possess a very Australian contempt that places him at odds with the saccharine sincerity of his fellow Americans.

This was most striking during Tillman’s hilarious interludes between songs. There are many performers who can deliver a pre-prepared joke on every leg of a tour with the same honesty (Kendrick Lamar and Dave Grohl spring to mind), but very few who are genuinely, reactively, spontaneously funny. Tillman belongs to the latter camp. He dealt with every heckler with impunity and, in a venue like the Opera House (where hecklers are distributed 180 degrees around the stage like a convention of John Wilkes Booths), this is no mean feat. Beyond that, the set delivered exactly as demanded from the audience: I Love You, Honeybear and prime cuts from his first LP, with enough live variation to keep us guessing. Nobody was left wanting and at the end of his final encore, with all questions answered, he sank offstage to the unyielding cheers of the crowd.

Some may question the Opera House’s appropriateness when it comes to hosting performers like Tillman. You are, after all, required to remain in your seats. This issue was even raised during Tillman’s customary end-of-gig question-and-answer session, when someone asked “How do you feel about playing venues like this?” Tillman, the diplomat, identified the Opera House crowds as iconoclasts who “sit when they should stand; stand when they should sit” (by this point, between encores, we were standing). I remain similarly agnostic on the matter, as the Opera House’s arrangement offers a number of advantages over rival venues. The sound quality is beyond marvelous, and the large stage allows for sprawling set-ups (and prime AV set-ups, see Olafur Arnalds and Four-Tet), which, in Tillman’s case, function as something of a labyrinth for him to bullrush through.

Still, in spite of any prejudice against sitting down, Father John Misty is a show wholeheartedly worth your time. The Opera House’s commitment to these kind of international acts make it one of Sydney’s premier rock venues—especially against a backdrop of everywhere else shutting down. With some luck, they’ll continue to play host to the world’s best performers (at least until someone decides they want to play the pokies with a harbor view).

[1] Inexplicably, he capped off the year receiving a Grammy nomination for ‘Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package’ (Tillman, over the course of the show, said that the only direction to go from here would be to improve the material held inside the packaging, but the packed house suggests we thought pretty highly that as well).