Sometimes, the best way to discover who we are is by pretending to be somebody else. A case in point: Seattle singer/songwriter Joshua Tillman, who made a bunch of quiet, wounded albums under his own name before becoming the drummer for folk-pop darlings Fleet Foxes. In 2012, Tillman quit that band, and his old identity to boot. He has since released a pair of records as his alter ego, Father John Misty, a sarcastic hipster showman in a big beard and fitted suit.
At the State Theatre on Monday night, the 34-year-old did his best to sell us the Misty brand, caressing the mic stand like a lover, satirizing rock concert tropes in a hilarious deadpan, posing and gyrating like a mix of Robert Plant, Diana Ross and an especially limber Deadhead.
It seems to be the only way that he can perform this material, which is defined by nakedly awestruck and vulnerable love songs, written and arranged with the sweeping melodies and inviting, hi-fi warmth of a 1970s Elton John record. Like Elton, Tillman feels freer when he’s in costume up there. His outfit of choice just happens to be layers of sarcasm – when a fan yelled out “I love you” in between songs, his straight-faced response was, “I love you too. But look, I just need some space. I’m not ready.”
Backed by a five-piece band, Father John Misty played every song from his latest LP – the wordy, wry and romantic I Love You, Honeybear. The musicians unpacked the album’s rich palette for us, from the saloon piano runs on the title track, to the blankets of synthesizers that propel “True Affection,” to the gentle pedal steel bends of “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow.” Tillman sang his guts out over all of it, his beautiful tenor reaching a high falsetto with ease.
All of this took place in front of a piece of stage dressing that perfectly encapsulates the Father John Misty experience. A huge neon heart hung over the band like a glowing moon, changing colors throughout the set. But a heart alone would’ve been a dead giveaway. We’d know for a fact that we’re looking at a man in love. So written over it in cursive letters was a phrase that’s inherently unfriendly to audiences: “No photography.”
Of course, when Tillman stepped out for the encore and played “I Went to the Store One Day” alone with his guitar, all of these attempts at distraction went up in smoke. “For love to find us of all people,” he sang. “I never thought it’d be so simple.” There, stepping out from the shadows of sarcastic remove was the hopeless romantic who wrote these songs. As long as he keeps performing like this, he can call himself whatever he wants.
Opening act The Sadies torched the place with their distinct brand of cowboy music – like the Sun Records house band with a spaghetti Western jones.
WHAT: Father John Misty
WHERE: State Theatre
WHEN: Aug. 3