It was a dry, chilly (by LA standards) evening as the Greek Theatre buzzed with growing excitement in the moments leading up to Father John Misty taking the stage. I stood at the edge of the stage admiring the full string ensemble in front of me, barely able to take in the full scope of the other instruments set up and waiting: more guitars than I could count, multiple keys, a few guys constituting a mini brass/winds section, at least 4 pedal boards…it was my first time seeing FJM live and I clearly had no idea what I was in for.
A giant circular screen was suspended from the stage left rafters, which over the course of the show, with the help of projections and lighting came to represent the sun, the moon, the Earth and the circle of life itself. As the fog machine began to roll, the lights dimmed, and the man himself took the stage, the packed house roared and instantly I was transported into the fully curated world of Misty’s imagination. Or rather, his interpretation of the world we all actually live in, conveyed through video projections depicting characters from the cover art on his latest album Pure Comedy, lively and effective lighting design, and the most thrilling high-concept symphonic existential alt-folk music I’ve ever heard.
I’ll confess, I had only skimmed through Pure Comedy before attending the show, but I couldn’t leave without purchasing it on vinyl. The world of the album was beautifully translated to live performance art, punctuated by Misty’s larger-than-life persona, fully embodying the preacher/poet/philosopher/troubadour/trope, the role he was clearly born to play. From his first entrance, humble and somewhat pedestrian, dressed all in black to match his band, his presence radiates the everyman who has awoken to the realities of human existence. He’s Jim Carrey’s latest existential rambling red carpet appearances. He’s Neo when he learns how to manipulate the Matrix. He’s King Lear’s fool, and yet somehow also channeling Jim Morrison, emphatically gesticulating, writhing, pseudo-modern dancing across the stage. It’s almost a shame when he picks up his guitar to play, because it limits his emotional range of movement. Though even on songs when he’s backlight in a green glow, his silhouette gently gyrating as he plays and his stunningly effortless voice soaring over the screams of aging hipsters screaming like teeny boppers, “Father!!” (who are these grown women? I found myself wondering), he is utterly mesmerizing to watch.
Misty kept the small talk to such a minimum that he barely spoke at all for the first forty minutes of his set. When he first addressed the audience, it was mid-song, in a self-aware stream of consciousness monologue where he commented on his own outfit, dictated shots to the live cameras, and meandered around the stage. The jolly nihilism and meta-commentary of his lyrics seems to translate itself in everyday conversation into reserved simplicity. Later he spoke to friends he’d spotted in the front row, and commented on his own stoicness: “Sometimes I have something relevant to say .. right now, I really don’t.”
Throughout the show, the band was the perfect vessel to carry Misty’s epic performance. Electronic elements were used so elegantly, with such effective restraint, and the strings were occasionally warbling and approximate, elevating the gorgeousness of the music to the perfect height of psychedelic surrealism. The music itself is so multi-dimensional, so rich, that it could absolutely stand on its own without the production bells and whistles, and as the show progressed, it changed tone several times, toning down the visual theatrics when he revisited older hits like I Love You, Honeybear, Bored In The USA and Real Love Baby. I found myself wondering, during eleventh hour switch to more a conventional concert, no less thrilling but more accessible, if he would recast the spell before the night was over. It was a true testament to Misty’s versatility as an artist and songwriter that he could navigate those tonal shifts so effortlessly and keep his audience in the palm of his hand the whole time, as well as a testament to the broad vision of Pure Comedy. In a way the new songs seem to represent his creative and philosophical vision coming most vibrantly to life with the scope and possibility afforded by a concept album. The video projections came back during the encore, underscoring stunning performances of In Twenty Years Or So and So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain.
Father John Misty is undoubtedly one of the most exciting live performers I’ve ever seen. His timeless rockstar appeal and poignantly current social commentary makes for a potent combination of charisma and conviction. I left the theatre shaking with excitement, thinking it would be awhile before I was likely to see any show nearly as thrilling.