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father john misty at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
I saw Father John Misty at a venue which he described as ‘gator-infested’, but considering I didn’t see any gators and got about a million mosquito bites, ‘mosquito-infested’ might have been a better descriptor. The Greenfield Lake Amphitheater is of course next to Greenfield Lake in Wilmington, North Carolina, and is a body of water typical of the American South in that they are known for breeding both. Despite almost getting eaten alive in more ways than one, the atmosphere was beautiful, the sun setting through the pines laden with Spanish moss and the breeze carrying tidings of the ocean, lending Mr. Tillman’s trademarked open shirt a more ‘pirate’ look than preacher.
The venue was smaller than I expected it to be in that I often expect (ignorantly and mistakenly) everyone to like and enjoy the same cultural phenomenon as I do, and if the Father were playing at a venue which were proportionate to his personal effect on me he could sell out Madison Square Garden multiple nights in a row. While Father John Misty is not unpopular by any means – dozens of millions of listens on Spotify alone make him an objectively mainstream artist - our culture is so fragmented and niche that he can be emblematic to some and unknown to others.
The crowd was fairly diverse – while mostly white and male (as expected), just in front of me were a group of women my age and a black man, all of whom knew most songs. As I watched the show, I wondered how I fell into the strata of those who feel defined and spoken for by Father John Misty’s music, and how it made its way to me and got stuck in my consciousness.
The answer I came to has to do with a kinship in his quest for sincerity, and the embarrassment and complacency he feels when achieving it. His performance name is a nonsensical, meaningless title that he hopes will cloak his work in a veneer with which the listener can separate Josh Tillman from his art. The ‘Clancy Steadwell’ moniker I write under is the same thing. When we search for truth, it has to come from somewhere within our personal experience, or else be a fragment of it interwoven with some character represented by the ‘stage name.’
In Tillman’s case, I believe he is a lot more forthcoming than I would be – for example, he uses his wife’s real name in many of the songs about love, something that I probably would not do in writing a novel or short story. Perhaps that is why I admire his work – he hides less behind the name. Or perhaps he would admire someone like me – in his latest record, Chloe and the Next 20th Century, he seems to be trying to inhabit more of a character. But in the end, both of us hope that art will speak for itself and not be defined by the person creating it. Sincerity must come from within, not without.
Tillman strove to form a sincere connection with the audience, partaking in a lot more back and forth with the crowd than many other acts I’ve seen. It seemed like he felt the need to qualify or deprecate every other song. “This one is stupid,” he said about ‘Ideal Husband.’ He described his new record as ‘Mary Poppins music.’ When returning for the encore of the show, he said his least-favorite part of performing was pretending to leave the stage for good, knowing full well he’d be back for another few songs. His introduction to ‘Goodbye, Mr. Blue’ was to ask the front row if they had ever had a pet die. Even his over-the-top theatrics are endearing: gesturing to the head, for instance, when a lyric implies thought; or to the heart for love.
Being dishonest or ironic kills him. And everyone there that night loved that about him, including me. In a larger sense, this is why I love his music and why I was there.
Someone from the crowd of course asked him to play ‘Real Love Baby’. ‘Real Love Baby’ was my ‘Tinder song’ when I met my now girlfriend on that platform (although in hindsight it should have been ‘True Affection’.) He obliged in the encore, and the version he played was an acoustic, down-tempo version quite different from the recording.
“I have no memory of writing this,” he said about it, and I believed him. While undeniably a great song, it is a sort of soft-rock anthem that is unabashedly from the heart and probably took all of ten minutes to write. He only played a single verse/chorus of this altered version, which is really all the song is anyway (and all me and my girlfriend needed). Then he transitioned medley-style to an acoustic rendition of ‘Holy Shit.’
If ‘Real Love Baby’ is a song he scarcely remembers writing, then ‘Holy Shit’ might be one he remembers well – indeed, he’s said it was written on his wedding night, which I’m told is always unforgettable. A stream of seemingly disparate two-to-three-word musings on modern life and descriptions of the zeitgeist, the profundity comes in the chorus:
‘Holy Shit’ is a recording I haven’t listened to much, but after hearing him play it that night, I have been unable to escape it. FJM is hoping we may know the ‘real’ him, but in the face of knowing that is impossible, he sings about capitalism, social media and pharmaceuticals. Great songs like ‘Bored in the USA’ and ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ come to mind. But without the lens of our own personal lives and our loved ones, how can we view these greater concepts of our society? Do these things even really matter if we can’t first be honest with ourselves and the people around us? Does knowing and understanding modern life help us understand ourselves and each other? I think that is what ‘Holy Shit’ is about, and it had me thinking these thoughts on the way home.
Anyways, sonically, the show was great. The sound didn’t bleed out into the Carolina night. It always seems to me (perhaps because his voice isn’t a main feature of his recordings – for me it’s the lyrics) like FJM’s voice might not lend itself to live listening, but at this performance he was perfect pitch-wise and with inflection. The band was serviceable (especially the horns), but not as tight as I maybe expected for an artist who’s been touring for a decade now. Maybe it’s a different group tour to tour.
Towards the end of the show, one of the women in front of me had the bright idea to wave to Tillman as he turned his gaze in our direction, and as he waved back, I quickly waved as well.
Farewell, my fellow pseudonym-er, and thanks for the show.
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