Father John Misty
The Ritz, Raleigh
Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In front of a flickering neon heart emblazoned with the cursive words “No Photography,” Father John Misty knelt with his back arched Tuesday night, crying out “Save me, white Jesus!” while he filmed himself with an audience member’s smartphone. He had casually plucked it from the crowd. He clenched his eyes as he overacted. Then, at the conclusion of “Bored in the USA,” he slipped the phone into his jacket pocket.

The audience waited: Was this the moment when Josh Tillman would become “the best kind of asshole”? Was this the moment they’d have to confront how uncomfortable he can make his audiences? It ended up being neither, as Tillman simply handed the phone back to its owner. The audience clapped, but Tillman waved off the recognition, saying “it’s what any decent human would do.”

I saw Father John Misty both times he played the Cat’s Cradle in 2013. During his May show, he antagonized the audience and seemed resentful because they didn’t get his humor. The second show, a solo set in the fall, offered more awkward stand-up than actual concert. He was testing out material that would later appear on his new album, I Love You, Honeybear, and the audience was cautious, unsure of how to react and fearful of another outburst.

But at Tuesday’s show at The Ritz in Raleigh, the crowd roared with appreciation, and Tillman embraced them. The increasing exposure for Father John Misty, especially in the wake of his recent jabs at Ryan Adams and Taylor Swift, means that everybody is now in on the jokes. They cheered for the asshole. They wanted the asshole. They got the asshole with a smirk and a wink.

After opening with “I Love You, Honeybear,” Tillman asked two male members of the audience to stop fighting. Uneasy silence ensued as everybody—including the venue’s security team—waited to see if this was part of the act or a serious request. It was serious, as Tillman repeated it with added obscenities. “Pretty intense folk rock,” he joked with a condescending tone when the incident was over. Tillman took a shot at the fighters’ appearance—“Those guys looked identical”—and the audience cheered and laughed. The joke broke the wall down between performer and audience early, so everybody was in this together.

But some awkwardness lingered, of course, as Father John Misty’s music isn’t itself a joke. It’s easy to soak in the beautiful arrangements, cathartic melodies and driving rhythms and then feel guilty when he sings about holocausts or having sex with someone he hates. A white woman with beginner dreads danced in snake-like fashion with eyes closed and her hands in prayer position as “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” played. Those around her unsuccessfully stifled laughs until she turned to her date—maybe realizing what the song was about—and said “I need a change of scenery” before storming off.

Father John Misty is an intense performer. Tuesday night, it looked the same—wild dancing, melodramatic emotions, heavy breakdowns—but felt different. Tillman cracked a few smiles and clutched hands with fans. He took their phones and took photos of them without teasing them too much. After the show, he even signed autographs and hugged admirers. During his typical encore question-and-answer session, a couple asked if they could slow dance on stage. He gave them, instead, a morose four-step plan about how to create a band and end up hating everything.

But a little later, during “Every Man Needs A Companion,” he beckoned them on stage. As the final song played, the couple danced. The neon heart in the background read, simply and at last, “Photography.”