Heading to Knitting Factory on Saturday night for Father John Misty and Har Mar Superstar, I knew two things for certain: there would be a lot of hipsters, and it would be crowded (the show had sold out earlier in the week.) I don’t know that I was quite prepared for either, being only a recently converted Father John Misty fan and only vaguely of the hipster persuasion, but I sidled to the front row, drink in hand, and hoped inconspicuously for the best.
By the time Har Mar Superstar (aka Sean Tillmann) and his roving crew (including Father John Misty himself, Josh Tillman on drums) took to the stage, the venue was packed and it was clear the crowd was ready for a show. They would not be disappointed. Now, to be perfectly fair, seeing Har Mar Superstar live is almost certainly nothing like listening to Tillmann’s various albums. He’s a great singer and his fun, catchy funk pop songs are a joy to listen to. But seeing Tillmann in action is another matter altogether. Not only is his voice even stronger in person, he’s a consummate performer; a veritable later day Pan or Bacchus with moves like Jagger. He started the set clad in an ethnic printed hooded dashiki and orange skinny jeans. By the end, he’d shed multiple layers and was standing in only his rather small skivvies, socks and at one point a pair of loafers.
The set included a number of Har Mar standards, many of which the crowd gamely sang along with, including “Tall Boy”, “Sunshine” and “Girls Only”. At one point (perhaps somewhere between the sailor top and tight baseball tee) Tillmann introduced a new “song” about procuring the band four shots of Jagermeister. Somehow, he managed to get the crowd to sing along to that too, and yes, he got the shots. It was evident throughout that Tillmann was enjoying every moment on stage whether gyrating or propping himself up into a side head stand without losing a beat. With so many musicians concerned with feigning some level of cool, it was honestly quite refreshing to see an artist who takes so much pleasure in his work.
After a brief set up, which included lighting an appropriately Laurel Canyon-esque incense stick, Father John Misty and co. took to the stage to a very warm reception. As the crowd cheered, Tillman crossed the stage nonchalantly, Maker’s Mark bottle tucked under one arm, ironic aviators on, and texting (or e-mailing, or tweeting). This turned into a running piece throughout the set with Tillman pausing between songs to “text” or “tweet” friends while laughing to himself at the fun that was being had elsewhere. It was clearly a commentary on what concert culture has become: a series of well-documented experiences to prove to your Facebook friends that you have some measure of currently cool taste and go to relevant things. Tillman didn’t hold back the angst either, and it was clear that many in the audience didn’t find the bit funny at all.
But it didn’t mar the performance. Much like a Jim Morrison or Neil Young type, Tillman’s sweetly assured singing and beautifully crafted lyrics highlight an intelligence and consciousness that many basking in his glory might not care to realize. From the mournful but somehow still optimistic “Funtimes in Babylon” to the disarmingly creepy “This is Sally Hatchet” (just watch the video), the Father John Misty sound is so much a throwback that its boomeranged back into the present and even though its roots are distinctly in the past it sounds so much more current than much of what’s out there. Perhaps a troubadour’s thoughtful response to the newly minted Occupy Wall Street culture? Perhaps. But it doesn’t matter. Tillman has something to say; his audience would do well to actually listen.
After the show, I pondered what I had just witnessed. The music was great to be sure, but for me, that wasn’t the most important aspect of the evening. I’ve been to a number of fun, raucous rock concerts in the past few months, but I’ve never been moved to think, or rather I have never really been moved to feel much. Tillman might have ruffled some feathers that night, but thank goodness for it. In a time when everything is so p.c. and manufactured with plastic smiles, it’s nice to see someone get angry and express that frustration eloquently. If nothing else, I am happy to report that the rebellious spirit of rock and roll is alive and well. And perhaps it’s more introspective than it’s ever been.