Father John Misty, upending expectations at Xponential Fest

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Father John Misty performing at the River Stage at the Xponential Festival in Wiggins Park in Camden on Friday July 22, 2016.

On Thursday night in Cleveland, Donald J. Trump accepted the nomination to be the Republican Party’s candidate for President of the United States.

On Friday evening in Camden, Father John Misty was scheduled to perform a solo acoustic set at the Xponential Music Festival.

The former had a clear impact on the latter.

Misty, whose real name is Josh Tillman, began with a question for the crowd, punctuated by an expletive. “What the f- is going on?”

The festival, which runs through Sunday evening at Wiggins Park and the adjacent BB&T Pavillion, where Alabama Shakes headline Saturday and Brandi Carlile Sunday, was being broadcast by host station WXPN-FM (88.5) as well as live streamed on the internet video platform VuHaus.

But organizers had been warned in advance that Tillman  was in a foul mood, and were aware of his propensity to go off script, so they made a pre-set decision to keep his set off the air.

“Do you realize we have an entertainment tyrant happening right now?” the singer-songwriter asked the crowd gathered at the Wiggins Park River stage, with a view of the Philadelphia skyline and Battleship New Jersey behind him.  “I expected a less-cliche evil.”

With Trump’s belligerent anti-immigrant America First rhetoric viewed as dangerous by many in the music and entertainment world, it’s going to be fascinating to track pop cultural reactions to this tense Presidential election, both this week at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and on though November.

Tillman’s response on the day after the RNC was to question the validity of “entertainment” itself, in the face of real life trouble and strife.

“Do you suspect that you don’t have a right to be entertained?” the bearded guitarist asked towards the start of an earnest, grandiose free form six minute opening monologue. “Stupidity runs the world because entertainment is stupid.”

The restless crowd reacted with confusion - some jeers, some cheers, the dude next to me loudly debating with himself whether he should be “that guy” to yell out “Shut up and sing!” What was up with this unpredictable punk-rock negativity harshing everybody’s buzz, just as the party was getting started?  

Tillman mockingly referred to himself as “homeless Chris Isaak” and wrestled with the question of whether the songs on his widely praised 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear have any value in the contentious political moment.

That album’s intriguing power draws in part from its effort to say something tender and true within the saccharine format of the silly love song. It succeeds by using irony to establish artistic distance, and then cut through it with heartfelt emotion.   

It’s a nifty trick which on Friday felt pointless to Tillman, who had played a straight ahead crowd pleasing rock show at a sold out Fillmore this spring. “I can’t sing love songs right now,” he said.

So he didn’t. Instead, he played one brand-new, unknown-to-listeners multi-versed song that stretched on for nearly 10 minutes, interspersed with off the cuff commentary. He pointed out the New Jersey behind him and sarcastically noted that he - and by implication, we - prefer drones to traditional weapons of war because we don’t have to face up to the carnage they create.

Strumming his guitar, Tillman sang about escaping a Southern California superficiality that’s headed to its cultural deathbed: “Let’s take the hearse down to New Orleans.”

“These L.A. phonies and their bulls- bands that sound like dollar signs and Amy Grants,” the 35-year-old former Fleet Foxes drummer sang. “So reads the pull-quote from my last cover piece, entitled ‘The Oldest Man in Folk Rock Speaks.’”     

That might have been it for the musical portion of the show, had a fan not requested Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire.”

“It’s not enough,” Tillman was saying.  “It’s not enough to be self aware ... It feels better to be angry than it does to feel just f- devastated that s- looks the way it looks.”

“Maybe just take a moment to be really f- profoundly sad,” he suggested, while allowing that “It’s a lot less sexy of a festival look.”

He then granted the Cohen request. “That is a good song. I can live with that. Feel free to sing along.” And he sang it straight and beautifully, albeit with an improvised-on-the-spot verse: “The world will always be going to s- / That’s why we will always need great wholesome folkie entertainment to deal with it.”

When he was finished singing his second song, “like a drunk in some midnight choir,” Tillman put his guitar down and apologetically addressed the crowd: “Alright, I love you very much. We’re all we’ve got. Thanks. That’s all I could do today.”

And with that, he was gone, having taken up less than half of his allowed time slot. The audience, unsure what to make of such brazen flouting of festival norms, began a social media debate over whether it was a brilliant act of cultural rebellion, the loathsome indulgence of an indie music troll, or just the result of some really bad acid.

The chattering went on for the rest of the evening, with subsequent acts like excellent sounding Philadelphians Kurt Vile & the Violators and songwriting duo Colvin & Earle seeming professional and eager to please in comparison. The Houston, Texas soul band The Suffers, thanked the crowd and the radio station for offering them the privilege to play. Even BB&T headliner Ryan Adams, a man known for self sabotaging onstage rants of his own, presented himself as a polished entertainer in comparison to FJM: “No lectures tonight.” he said. “Let’s just have some fun.” 

Tillman posted these tweets after the show:

UPDATE: On Saturday afternoon, Tillman posted a message on Instagram.

 

UPDATE #2:

Later in the weekend, Tillman and Philadelphia songwriter Timothy Showalter, who performs as Strand of Oaks, got into a Twitter war.

As Pitchfork reported, Showalter unleashed several tweets critical of Tillman. "Furthering your entertainment career by calling entertainment stupid," he wrote. He added: "Shows have saved my life. The stage is a privilege, more importatly FANS are a privilege. Go on a lecture tour if you have so much to say" and "I love your music so much. But don't come to my town and insult my peoples intelligence." 

He also offered Tillman career advice:

Tillman responded: "Entertainment is context. History is full of disgusting forms of entertainment justified by cultral bias and passivity." He went on: "Draping yourself in local boy righteousness is an easy sell. No matter where I was, what I saw the night before, f---ed me up." He added "The future is going to have a hay day with us and our reality tv Mussolini" and "but at least you'll be able to say you did your best to tweet at the dissenters."

One common complaint among Tillman's many critics on social media over the weekend was that he didn't deserve to get paid for such a meager "performance." He replied: "Didn't take the money, Jesus that assumption is sickeningly common, grow a pair." And he retweeted the message below, with the note "Wow, 1/2000 tweets actually gets it right."

 

 

 

 

 

Below, watch a 'Strombo Sessions' clip of Father John Misty playing "Bird On A Wire."

Previously: Truth To Power at the DNC Follow In the Mix on Twitter