Father John Misty keeps ending up on the floor.
For the most part, he’s ambling around the stage, leaning on the mic stand and coolly looking down at his feet like he just don’t care. But every so often he snaps out of it, and a twitch of his hips leads to him throwing up his arms in enthusiasm. The chorus swells, he summons up a guttural growl and suddenly he’s dropped to his knees, mic cord draped over him, howling at the ceiling of the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall.
Anyone who’s seen him live before knows that this is kind of what he does; alternates between beguiling, standoffish artiste and electrifying rock-and-roll abandon. But hey, that’s why we love him: He’s two separate artists, one as compelling as the other.
Now touring in support of his second full length, I Love You, Honeybear, he’s playing a couple of off-the-beaten-path tour dates in California to start. Friday night’s was in Felton, at a venue hidden off the highway in the Santa Cruz mountains. Saturday’s was in a veterans hall in the two-point-seventy-five-square-mile wine country town of Sonoma. It’s a complete departure from the kinds of up-market venues often found in the Bay and that, considering he’s popular enough be playing Coachella in a few months, he would no doubt be able to book. But places like vet’s halls and decaying theaters are kind of in line with at least one of Father John Misty’s personae, and are the best place to see him live.
On 2012’s Fear Fun, the album that won him critical and public acclaim far and wide, he comes off as a moody rock ‘n’ roll martyr; the kind of classic Canyon-dwelling rock star who drinks in the morning, thinks too much for his own good, feels bad a lot of the time and writes a lot of songs about it. But in live performances, and especially here in this little auditorium, he’s actually very personable—talkative; even kind of funny. His commentary is still incisive and clever, they’re just being broadcast through a different channel. One that smiles sometimes.
This is the second night of his tour—these first few oddball dates seem to sort of serve as preview performances before he moves on to more established tour stops like The Roxy and The Bowery Ballroom in coming weeks. Tonight, he and the band are still working out the kinks. It’s all good, though: there are a few stops and starts, but even when things momentarily stall, the band soon roars to life and Misty’s singular stage presence starts to seep out. It comes in short bursts: sometimes as witty reworkings of his own already-witty lyrics, others as a fevered dance in which he ends up swiveling in time with his smoky psych choruses and juke-joint twang, climbing over equipment and, yes, occasionally throwing himself upon the floor.
“You’re gonna hear a lot of shit you don’t know tonight,” he warns the crowd early on. He opens with a steady stream of selections from Honeybear, and he’s not even trying to cater to the crowd with more familiar songs—but he doesn’t have to. His new stuff is just as engaging and just as exciting as Fear Fun favorites, which he gets into later. Misty and his band have an incredible command of a stage – any stage. Even though this is still kind of a dress-rehearsal, his band is so tight and he so committed to putting on a good live show that, in such a small venue, they kind of explode out of the place. He was called back for an encore before he even left the stage, and when he returned for round two, he thanked the audience for their kindness. He sounded sincere.
But then he made his way to the second song in his encore, and the sarcasm snaked its way back out. “This is a Leonard Cohen cover…get those iPhones out.”
You can never quite tell if it’s all a big joke or not. Listening to the disaffected undertones of his records, it’s hard not to construct an image of Father John Misty as someone who knows he is good at what he does but kind of hates attention. But onstage, the moody misanthrope that he might be drips away and it doesn’t take long before you succumb to his spry shuffles across the stage and clever turns of phrase. You eventually find yourself pathetically charmed by him; giggling at his every self-deprecating aside like you’re in 7th grade and he’s the impossibly-cool kid you have a crush on. Live shows of his are a nice reassurance that he’s not actually another self-styled outsider; another brilliant-but-insufferable rock ego being endlessly indulged by music press. No matter what he wants to be and he’s trying to be as an artist, he’s just as much showman as he is songwriter, and nowhere is that more apparent than in off-the-map venues that he’s still not too cool to play.
Or maybe he is too cool – who knows? It seems unfair to try and tell you exactly what he is. When a performer is as innately good as Father John Misty, it doesn’t really matter whether he means it or not. Father John Misty is whatever the hell he wants to be at any given moment, and right now he’s howling a chorus into the mic, balanced on his knees in the ballroom at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall.