Father John Misty, an artist known for his sardonic sense of humor and salty onstage commentary, was unusually subdued at his “Austin City Limits” taping on Tuesday night.
“He was on his best behavior,” a friend joked after the show.
For this go-round, the artist also known as Josh Tillman let the music speak for him. And with an ensemble of over a dozen local players, including a full string and horn section, complementing his six-piece touring band, the songs were dazzling.
Wearing a suit coat and pants and a pair of loafer/slippers, he eased into the show on an introspective note, entering to the scene-setting, piano-backed intro of “Pure Comedy,” the title track of his latest album that dropped in April. As the song built, he unfurled himself as a practiced entertainer, moving easily around the stage with the melodramatic flair of a mock Vegas lounge act. His wiry dancing brought him to his knees more than once, and he added gallant hand flips to each emotional flourish.
Misty’s greatest gift as an artist is his lyricism. He writes expressive story songs drenched in his dry wit and dark sarcasm. The large ensemble behind him at ACL Live coaxed wonderful texture and color out of them. “Dying Man” soared on magnificent swells of strings, and “Chateau” oozed mean-spirited suaveness. “Leaving L.A.” was a marvelous study in contrasts. The song, a misanthropic indictment of pop culture tempered with ample doses of self-loathing, was set against a positively lovely backdrop with the string section ebbing and falling underneath a ribbons of light.
“This is easily the only television show you could get that song on,” he joked afterward, noting it would add ammunition to conservatives who wish to defund the National Endowment for the Arts.
The other big chuckle of the night came earlier in the evening, when he switched the confessional admission in his sentimental “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” from “I’ve got nothing to hide from you/Kissing my brother in my dreams of finding God knows in my dreams” to a shout-out to our city’s musical icon.
The crowd cheered as he crooned about “kissing Willie Nelson in my dreams.”
The grand climax of the evening came during set closer “Honeybear.” As the song built to its emotional heights, he stepped down from the stage into the audience. Ignoring the ladies, he grabbed a silver-haired gentleman in the front row and embraced him, swaying meaningfully while singing, “I love you, Honeybear.”
He went on to move around the crowd, but that first fan interaction was definitive. Father John Misty has no interest in being the sensitive indie dude you might want him to be, and he’s not even a little bit concerned what you think of that.