Last night I went to see Father John Misty perform at the Thekla in Bristol. I first saw him 3 years ago at End of the Road Festival when he was still performing under his real name, Josh Tillman.
That first performance was pleasant enough; thoughtful, humble and slightly haunting acoustic folk from a beardy, demure man. I only knew him as the drummer from Fleet Foxes back then and didn’t think much more about him after his set at the festival – it was a nice way to pass half an hour and nothing more (incidentally, you should definitely check out End of the Road Festival if you get a chance, some of the best live music experiences of my life have been there, and I go to a lot of gigs).
The set last night was from another place altogether – Father John Misty sashayed on to the stage like the Midwest’s answer to Morrissey and proceeded to flirt and croon his way through what can only be termed as 60 minutes of musical bliss.
His set swung from danceable blues to poppy folk and then to wistful ’60s-influenced rock. He was never short of captivating and made every soaring vocal and gesture or flourish seem effortless. It was a world away from what I saw in 2009.
The power of an alter-ego
I find it interesting that going under a pseudonym can enhance your output as an artist; I guess it can be quite a freeing thing to go on stage with your audience knowing that you are playing a character, rather than trying to do the earnest artist-baring-your-soul bit.
In the same way that some artists pile on make-up or crazy outfits, going with an eye-catching moniker can give your audiences an idea that they can expect something a bit different and ergo you have to put in the extra effort to make sure that you meet their expectations.
However, I can’t help but wonder how much mileage there is in an alter ego – surely if this character is too exuberant or detached from your real self it can be difficult to keep coming up with new material? David Bowie had Ziggy Stardust as just one stage in his career and then killed the character off, and many other artists have developed a world or environment for each album rather than make the change themselves on stage.
One example of this is Johnny Flynn in his first album A Larum, where he centered his songs around the cold and lonely world of being a world-weary traveller or hermit, despite having written the songs as a twenty-something public school boy.
Living in character
For the moment in any case, many of the most exciting artists I’ve seen in the past 2 years have inhabited a character or harked back to another time. One of the best examples I’ve seen being the imitable Curtis Eller with his infectiously energectic sets comprising of dustbowl ditties, wild banjo playing, yodelling and some dance moves that sit somewhere between ballet and a drunk weaving his way home.
Curtis wears baggy trousers and braces, sports a brave moustache and sings about turn of the century politicians and sports stars as if you were all knowingly sat in a downtown speakeasy in Brooklyn. It all makes for quite a special experience.
I saw him play at The Cube Microplex recently with similarly-themed Bristol band Boxcar Aldous Huxley and it felt like for 2 hours myself and the rest of the audience agreed to conspire with the artists in this historical ruse. That both acts are so theatrical also made the audience much more open to participate, with lots of singing along, clapping, whistling, yodelling and (when asked) pigeon-style cooing.
To sum up, as much as I’m not sure how long these artists can inhabit the world or characters they’ve created, I’m quite happy to be along for the ride. And if Father John Misty plays a gig near you, I thoroughly recommend you go. You won’t regret it. Check out some of his performances on YouTube, this one is one of my favourites.
So; seeing as it’s nearly the weekend, have some song recommendations courtesy of yours truly. All of these artists fall in to the category of living out characters, alter-egos or far exaggerated versions of themselves in their music:
- Father John Misty – Nancy From Now On
- Curtis Eller – Save Me Joe Louis
- Boxcar Aldous Huxley – Sparks Flew Over Eigth Avenue
- Johnny Flynn – Howl
- Beirut – Nantes
- Dent May & his Magnificent Ukulele – Meet Me in the Garden
- Franz Nicolay – The Ballad of Hollis Wadsworth Mason, Jr.
And one more for luck, because you can’t legitimately start a weekend without a bit of Brakes.