Halfway through the show, J. Tillman looked to the back of the venue, where there’s a bar lined with mirrors. He gazed at his reflection, wondering out loud, “who is that anorexic homeless person dancing around in his long underwear?”
And although that was a harsh self-assessment, he scattered antics like this throughout the show, tackling everything from Kentucky’s stance on the Iraq war (neutral, he explained – like only one other state – his home state of Maryland) to how Kentucky must have had the most onstage silverware per capita (he found a spoon within the first two minutes of the set, and stopped the opening number, “Funtimes in Babylon,” midway to explain).
It was this attitude, this freeness, that set the tone for the show. With ease, Tillman belted out songs with a voice like caramel melted in the sun. It was as if he didn’t need to take breaths; sugary notes just fell out of his mouth miraculously.
The smooth ooh’s and laid back vibe of “Nancy From Now On” made you forget that he was actually singing “pour me another drink/and punch me in the face,” and instead concentrate on the way the guitars meshed beautifully with his voice in a blissed out melodic wonderland.
Four other people joined Tillman onstage, and though they sounded like integral, elaborate pieces of a beating heart, the frontman was one of those happy disasters that drew all the attention. While he played drums with Fleet Foxes for a while, Tillman got his start as a solo artist, and the man obviously belongs center stage.
His dance moves were reminiscent of elementary school girls coordinating a dance to the latest boy band song – complete with finger wagging “no’s,” shimmies, and some of the best booty shaking to ever come from a man’s body. Britney Spears couldn’t do what he did without lip-syncing. Some of the more dramatic moments seemed modeled on Elvis Presley’s moves.
Not everything was a dance party. The band freaked out on “This is Sally Hatchet,” a dark, moody song that broke them free of the mostly carefree-sounding set. The cathartic guitar breakdown begged you to close your eyes and let it take you places. Tillman fell to the ground, stretching his arms to the skies, reminding the crowd that these songs are more complex than they may appear on the surface.
“Now I’m Learning to Love the War” slowed things down, but Father John Misty bounced back up to speed with “Tee Pees 1-12.” The band made it through nearly their entire catalog, nailing almost all dozen songs on their debut, Fear Fun.
For Tillman to pack Headliners – after just releasing the first album under this moniker last May – is an unusual and surprising feat. But when the striking beat behind “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” echoed to the back of the room on the last song before the encore, and Tillman seemed near explosion with his jerking dance moves, it made sense. This was not only an entertaining show, but one with the kind of musical genius that doesn’t come around every day.