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Event Thu Nov 01 2012
Halloween, among other things, is one of the only times in the year where taking on a new persona is accepted without question. Artifice and affect are celebrated, and even expected. So it was especially appropriate that ex-Fleet Foxes drummer and journeyman songwriter Josh Tillman's latest hat, Father John Misty, rolled through Chicago Tuesday at Lincoln Hall, in the middle of the city's Halloween frenzy. Luckily, costume or not, Tillman wears his new role well.
Openers Jeffertitti's Nile were the most seasonally appropriate act of the night, with their psychedelic trash-rock offering the perfect soundtrack for the "eve of Satan's reign," as Tillman later pointed out. The more low-profile but no less excellent outfit was led by Tillman's bassist Jeffertitti and actually included Tillman on drums (introduced by Jeffertitti as "L. Ron Hubbard.") Jeffertitti even had a funny rant imploring to the crowd to "maybe not use so much plastic and weird stuff like that" (a comment on Hurricane Sandy?), all the while looking like a hybrid of Ariel Pink and a young Dave Pirner with his long, stringy hair and sparkling blazer.
Next was La Sera, the latest project from Vivian Girls' "Kickball" Katy Goodman, mixing in plenty of surf-inspired tracks alongside her more straight-ahead garage-pop ballads. Goodman, who is something like the Drew Barrymore of indie rock, was all smiles throughout her set, gently swaying along as her voiced cooed along to tracks from her newest LP, Sees the Light, like "Break My Heart." There were even some revealing moments of insight: When asked by a random member of the crowd why she goes by "Kickball" Katy, she paused, went into another song, then responded matter-of-factly that she used to play kickball in college. And now we know!
Tillman walked onto the stage a few minutes ahead of 10pm with The Band classic "Tears of Rage" blaring in the background, giving a deadpan welcome to the crowd to "a wonderful evening of folk-rock." That careful mix of hyper-self-consciousness and affable self-deprecation is Tillman's specialty, and it became clear that his cult-leader/ringmaster persona added an important element to his onstage dynamic. Often he would work in legitimately funny off-the-cuff bits between songs (a riff that "Abraham Lincoln built this rock club" complete with folksy Appalachian music playing in the background; an impromptu, winking monologue about being "meta" for Halloween by opting to be himself "because who really is themselves anyway?"; and even a promise of "more disjointed between-song blather" toward the end of the set.) All of this hinted that the comic aspect of his live schtick might be nearly as important as the tunes, but luckily he had a shit-hot band that was more than willing to bring his rollicking, narrative folk to life.
Over the course of the evening Tillman and his band combed through the entirety of the Fear Fun, including standouts like "Funtimes in Babylon," "Nancy From Now On" and "Everyman Needs a Companion" with tremendous energy, hitting all of the densely layered harmonies and textured sounds from the album with added punch. Tillman's voice was crystal clear, his gestures loose and playful (and even at times conjuring the white-boy funkiness of Midnite Vultures-era Beck), and his band matched his energy — if not his moves — all night. Album standout "I'm Writing A Novel" was especially stunning given its country tinge — courtesy of Benji Lysaght's masterful work on the Telecaster — that pinned the song between late-'60s Nashville and the golden days of Tillman's own Laurel Canyon. Lysaght had another opportunity to stretch out during his encore duet with Tillman for a jazzy cover of the old standard "Nevertheless (I'm In Love With You)," before offering up a rousing full-band medley of Canned Heat's "On the Road Again" and Booker T and the MGs "Green Onions." Tillman's sizable charisma shone through all of it.
There's a lyric in "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" where Tillman talks about raising the dead, imploring that "someone's gotta help me dig." That idea of grave-digging was evident in each of his songs on Tuesday night: echoes of Neil Young, John Phillips, and Laurel Canyon legends of old rang throughout. Eight albums into what is becoming a storied career, Tillman has finally seemed to cultivate a lasting persona in Father John Misty, the roots of which were readily seen toward the end of his tenure in Fleet Foxes, when his banter and overflowing charisma would dwarf bandleader Robin Pecknold on a nightly basis. On Tuesday night, he combed through tracks that exhume the ghosts of California folk to great and varied effect, giving the impression that his new Father John Misty moniker (and attendant persona) were a long time coming. He just needed a few people to help him dig.