Yesterday kicked off the annual Xponential Music Festival*, a 3-day undertaking, offering live performances by artists featured prominently on Philadelphia member-supported radio station WXPN. The festival has been the jumping off point for many performers who rose to super-stardom and others poised to do the same. Indie folkies The Lumineers played the show's smaller stage just prior to the recognition that would have them playing 25,000-seat indoor/outdoor venues within months. A nervous Grace Potter opened the festival several years in a row, before taking a coveted headlining spot on the final day and making appearances on the national concert tour and talk show circuit,
And then there's Josh Tillman. Ya gotta love Josh Tillman.
The enigmatic musician and one-time member of a dozen, just-under-the-radar, indie rock bands, emerged in 2012 under the guise of one "Father John Misty." As Misty, Tillman released two full-length, critically-acclaimed albums, 2012's Fear Fun, a dark and mythic journey through the desolate underbelly of Hollywood, and 2015's I Love You Honeybear, a self-described concept album about himself. Honeybear, while lauded as one of the year's best albums, was also derided as "misogynist," and "lacking in memorable hooks or choruses." Unfortunately, the majority of reviewers didn't understand what Father John Misty was all about. The truth is: he's musically pulling everyone's leg. Sure, he can pull off a lovely ballad, but if you listen closely, the biting wordplay of his lyrics are dripping with irony. The lead single from Fear Fun was the hauntingly beautiful "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings." The lyrics, woven within an ethereal musical arrangement, cryptically describe the singer's penchant for having sex on top of marble tombs.
His live performances are curious spectacles, ranging from straight-forward deliveries of selections from his two releases, along with a few unexpected covers to an April Fools Day show that consisted of a single song - both performed and noted on his hand-written set list. He once performed a new song while standing behind a six-foot cutout of an iPhone, stating that this is how most people experience new music. Father John Misty messes with his audience. If you're a fan, you love it. If you're just a casual listener, you may be bewildered and possibly put off.
It's a joke, dammit.
On the first day of the Xponential Music Festival, after crowd-pleasing sets from local darlings Queen of Jeans, Texas indie rockers White Denim and Jersey blues guitarist Billy Hector, Father John Misty took the main stage — a stage cleared bare of any and all monitors and instruments. Prior to his entrance, he scribbled a curious setlist (pictured) of songs, none of which he had any intention of playing. Then, he informed the good folks at WXPN that his set would not be suitable for radio broadcast. Then, he strode onstage, standing alongside his holstered acoustic guitar and began to address the anxious crowd — anxious to hear live renditions of the familiar tunes they had heard on the radio. But Father John Misty wouldn't have it. He launched into what amounted to a six-minute, profanity-laden, near-incoherent rant, touching vaguely on various subjects, including "our next potential idiot king," his disdain for the decommissioned Battleship New Jersey docked nearby and his belief that "entertainment is stupid."
The audience squirmed and squirmed some more.
Finally he picked his guitar from its stand and strummed a meandering, improvised ballad that was self-referential and narrative to events of the day. The audience began to express their displeasure. Although there was a smattering of cheers and laughter (include me and Mrs. P among those offering approval), the audience's collective reaction was one of anger. Jeers, boos and catcalls of "get the fuck off the stage" cut the air at various points throughout the crowd. After nearly ten minutes of basic strumming and puzzling lyrics, Father John Misty brought the piece to a close. He started his venomous, curse-filled banter again, only to interrupt himself with a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire," featuring another set of improvised lyrics. He replaced his guitar, said "That's all I got." and walked off the stage — a full thirty minutes early. The staff scrambled to calm the restless and disappointed crowd.
It was priceless.
What the overwhelming majority of the festival-goers didn't understand was; they were had. It was a joke. A put-on. A ruse. A carefully calculated piece of performance art. Those familiar with Father John Misty's stage antics were captivated, entertained and completely enthralled. Those poor uninitiated who came to hear "Chateau Lobby #4" had no idea what to make of this guy with a voice as big as the apparent chip on his shoulder. They had no clue that Father John Misty was more Andy Kaufman than he was Bill O'Reilly. He wasn't there to deliver a politically-charged, "Wake Up, America" message. He was there to entertain. And entertain he did, it's just most of the people didn't realize that they were being entertained. That made the whole thing funnier.
Father John Misty did exactly what was expected of Father John Misty... and that's the unexpected. There was no deep meaning. There was no message. It was a piece of performance art. And while performance art isn't for everyone, it does make for a great experience watching those who don't quite get it.
On Saturday, day two of the festival, the discussion in the queue waiting the enter was filled with discussion of Father John Misty's set. Twitter was "a-twitter" with discussion of Father John Misty's set, as was Facebook. Other bands even made reference to the previous day's performance. Two days later, the were still talking about him.
A few years ago, comedian Ricky Gervais was recruited to host the Golden Globe Awards and was criticized and condemned for telling off-color jokes and politically-incorrect observances. But, he was hired for his skill in just those areas in the first place.
Now do you get it? If you don't, you never will.
*presented by Subaru