Josh Tillman is a man of many talents. More commonly known by his stage name of Father John Misty, the one-time Fleet Foxes drummer is the sort of enigmatic showman who can suit up for the occasion yet still pass as a Dickensian vagabond; something of a “Moroccan-slash-pajama vibe” he’s been honing for the past several years. Tillman is a man equally as known for his biting social commentary as for his intensely emotional folk rock, and when he takes the stage as Father John Misty it’s impossible not to wonder what he’s going to do next.
From the opening keys of “Pure Comedy”, an increasingly relevant piano-led ballad and the title track of his most recent album, Tillman commanded the respect and admiration of the sold-out Metro crowd. He picked up his Martin HD-28 for a seamless slide into “Total Entertainment Forever”, his velvety croon delivering tongue-in-cheek one-liners about technological dependency and bedding Taylor Swift “every night inside the Oculus Rift”.
“Did you guys think five years ago when I last played here that I’d be back for some kind of space opera in giant pants?” he mused. “We were so innocent then, I don’t wanna think about it.” We’re only five songs deep and Tillman is sitting on the edge of the stage like we’ve been there for hours. “I’ve got nothing to hide from you,” he sings. And you believe him. It’s an exceedingly intimate moment in an evening full of them, one that shouldn’t be this easy to come by when you’re stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a thousand other punters.
The celebrated singer-songwriter dipped deeper into his back catalogue with several tracks from 2012’s Fear Fun, culminating in the reverb-heavy “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” – the only instance in which Tillman strapped on an electric guitar. A custom-built “Vandervelde”, it was a fine one at that: a ponderosa pine body with a rosewood fretboard and maple neck, so named for Tillman’s long-term guitarist, David Vandervelde.
But it was Father John Misty’s latest tracks that seemed to hold the crowd in silent awe, the room often falling as quiet as Sydney’s inner-city streets in the wake of the lockouts.
With his band ably handling the bluesy, at times gospel-like atmospherics, Tillman was free to both slink about the stage wielding the mic stand like an oversized baton and lose himself in the groove, hips swivelling à la Thom Yorke. When he collapses to his knees, vibrating like a pastor possessed, you realise Tillman is the type of musician who leaves everything up there on stage.
“Tonight has been a very responsible rock show. No one has lost their dignity, which is good,” he said, still on the mend from a wild stint at this year’s Splendour in the Grass. He proceeded to host an impromptu Q&A, hinting that he’d be back in Sydney in February and that his next album would be mixed this week. “You know what I watch all the time? The Eagles documentary,” he added, fielding a question about his Netflix habits. “That thing is like, ‘How to grow five assholes in 10 years: a step-by-step instruction manual’.”
Tillman’s pure, piercing vocals carried us through a five-song encore, equally at home during tender tracks like “The Memo” as during the surprisingly fervent crescendo of “Holy Shit”, the night’s final track. In just under two hours Father John Misty showed us precisely why he’s so worthy of the hype that so often gets hurled his way.