What did Father John Misty do this time?
Sing his songs. Play his music. And do both with what came across as a fully engaged, deeply respectful attitude toward both his own material and his audience, as if he considered it a privilege to be on stage.
The Friday night show by Misty — real name Josh Tillman — at the Skyline Stage at the Mann Center was quite the performative pivot from the last time the lanky, often provocative singer-songwriter played an outdoor show on a summer evening in the Philadelphia area.
To recap a day that will live in infamy, or at least as a bullet point in Misty’s bio on his Wikipedia page: At the Xponential Music Festival in Camden in 2016, Misty was slated to perform the night after Donald Trump’s nomination at the Republican National Convention. The songwriter showed up in a cranky mood, referred to himself as “homeless Chris Isaak,” and questioned the validity of entertainment when “an entertainment tyrant” stood on the precipice of the presidency.
That night, he did just two songs: A Leonard Cohen cover and the then-unreleased 13-minute “Leaving L.A.,” which would turn out to be a centerpiece of his excellent, challenging Pure Comedy, which came out this spring.
Misty’s rant on the impotence of entertainment in the face of real-world events was largely met with disdain. Many festivalgoers let their feelings be known that the singer’s job was not to surprise or subvert, but to do what he had been contracted to: “Shut up and sing!”
So on Friday night at the Mann, that’s what Misty did. Fronting a superb big band that included five strings and three horns, the songwriter played it straight, making news by not making news.
That was a smart move by Misty. The brainy, self-analytical singer does, however, have a penchant for too-clever-by-half court jester antics that gain him plenty of media attention but threaten to overshadow his music.
Last month, for instance, he commented on social media eulogizing run amok by penning a tribute to the soon-to-be retired animatronic bands that entertain at Chuck E. Cheese restaurants. With tongue in cheek, he offered heartfelt praise to the robot entertainers for their professionalism in “getting on that stage every night and leaving it all up there.”
No one could accuse Misty of not doing just that in his Skyline stage show. Playing some acoustic guitar, but mainly prowling the stage with a mic stand as his only prop, the pleasantly effective if not remarkably voiced singer — now rebearded after going with a questionable mustache look at the beginning of the Pure Comedy album cycle — can be a fabulous front man when he feels like it.
At the Mann, that meant joking that Pure Comedy’s “The Memo” is about “despair and malaise, but you could say that about all of my songs,” or throwing himself down on his knees to please, and literally throwing himself into the crowd as he ratcheted up the full-on rock intensity on “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.”
Misty had little to say throughout the evening other than “really, thanks so much for coming, you guys have been great” and “drive home safe.” Instead the music did the talking, with strings glistening on “Ballad Of The Dying Man,” a baritone sax growling on “Real Love Baby,” and his early 1970s Laurel Canyon sound kicking into country-rock gear (and a most-welcome change in tempo) on the self-mocking “I’m Writing A Novel.”
But Misty’s songs, of course, are never at a loss for words. Friday’s generous, 22-tune set was made up primarily of wordy tunes from Pure Comedy and 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear, two albums which gamely strive to say something fresh about the nature of love and the human condition (or human comedy, as it were) while remaining painfully aware that pretty much everything worth saying has already been said. At the Mann, Misty did his job saying it anyway, and did it so well that none could go home complaining that they hadn’t been thoroughly entertained.