Sunday, May 20, 2012

Live Review: Play Misty For Me

1. Early Show: Jonathan Wilson / Jenny O.
By now, the Mercury Lounge is starting feel like home. So it was no surprise that Father John Misty's exuberant bass player, Jeffertitti, was standing right inside the door and that within minutes we were chatting away like old friends. I had to tear myself away, however, to accept a drink from my sister and brother-in-law, who "always buy a drink for someone who turns us on to great music." They owe me a great many drinks. After a few sips of Black Bush, we stepped into the music room to hear Jenny O.

As I told Jeffertitti (and Laurel Stearns, Father John Misty's manager, who was also hanging out), anyone who can sing a Buddy Holly tune without making me cringe is worth a listen. This rule of thumb was proven right by Jenny. Her voice is exquisitely controlled throughout its considerable range and her songwriting has a busker's swagger along with a deep engagement with elemental folk and rock structures. High hopes in this quarter for her debut album, "produced with, for, and at me" by none other than Jonathan Wilson, who was up next.

JW is like that cool guy you stay in touch with because he always has the best records. The difference is, he can play every note (and instrument, practically) on all those records. But this virtuosity is always in the service of song and emotion, and he gives plenty of opportunities for his band-mates to shine. One of my favorite moments was when he picked up an enormous tambourine to enhance our - and most likely his own - experience of another great solo by his ace keyboard player. JW and the band are now simpatico enough that when echoes of Hendrix's 1983...A Merman I Should Turn To Be seemed to creep into a lengthy take of Natural Rhapsody, they were all along for the ride.

Terry, my brother-in-law, and I saw Wilson back in January and neither one of us would have called that show tentative. But when he and his four-piece band roared to life this time around the true meaning of "road-tested" was immediately clear. They just jelled more and found even more directions to pursue in JW's songs, which already have marvelous meanderings built in.

This was the last gig of their tour. Next stop is opening for - and playing with, I believe - Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. While the prospect of JW exploring the interstices of Free Falling (Petty's best song) is tantalizing, I look forward to his next club tour - and so should you.

2. Late Show: Father John Misty / Har Mar Superstar
After popping around the corner for a mochachino at D'Espresso, I returned to the Mercury for what Wilson had called "the Father John Misty experience." But first up was the character who calls himself Har Mar Superstar. His gimmick is that he's a tubby little balding man who fancies himself a funky R and B sensation. Unfortunately, his voice and songs are not up to the task and his act quickly grows monotonous. For a sub-cheap thrill, he ends the show in his underwear. Life is too short to discuss him further, except to say that he did provide an instructive contrast to Father John, as they are both persona exercises to some extent and Har Mar demonstrates the pitfalls of that being all you have to offer.

Remember J.Tillman? The graceful and melodic drummer from Fleet Foxes, known for his solid backing vocals and witty asides? He's also known for a series of beautiful albums under his own name. While these feature some excellent songs (check out No Occasion) and gorgeous production, they can be slightly morose and over-introspective. In fact, the most satisfying J.Tillman recording I own is actually a Daytrotter session from 2010, which never fails to elicit at "Who IS this?" whenever I play it to the unsuspecting. So he has long been on my radar as a hugely talented musician looking for focus or identity, or both, and when I read last year that Jonathan Wilson was producing his next album, I sensed a breakthrough around the corner.

Little did I know that the breakthrough would come under another name: Father John Misty, whose louche videos began dropping into my iTunes via the Sub Pop podcast earlier this year. This guy likes a bit of Riot House decadence with his singer-songwriter stylings, has outrageous dance moves, an acerbic wit, and probably thinks J.Tillman is a bit of a wet blanket.

Now, with the excellent album Fear Fun (produced by one J. Wilson, natch) under his belt, he's taken his show on the road with an top notch band of co-conspirators. Coming on stage to the strains of I Call My Baby Pussycat, his greeting was "Hello, fake funk fans," before launching in to an explosive assay of I'm Writing A Novel. His voice sounded stronger and more flexible than on record and the catharsis seemed to feel as good to him as it did to the crowd.

Throughout the night, I never tired of his slinky moves, accompanied as they were by his haunted eyes and slightly pissed-off air - not to mention one terrific song after another. His band was a study in contrasts, mainly between Jeffertitti, with his dyed blond hair, pogoing and overall extroversion, and the other guys. There were so many personae flying around, however, that it wouldn't surprise me if the bass player was a devout churchgoer and that Banjy Lysaght, the somewhat studious lead guitarist, who achieves his precise and glowing tone with the help of about 18 effects pedals, was the one with the nearly empty bottle of tequila rolling around under his seat on the tour van.

The whole show was a complete success and by the end, Father John and his cohort owned the room. The combination of literate (and often hilarious) songs steeped in the sounds of the best of American music and more than a little sparkle of showmanship is a winning one. J. Tillman could learn a few things from this guy.

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