Though he undoubtedly possesses one of the finest local releases this year in solo debut, Burning Boy; Joe McKee’s lucid music-making was a harder sell in the sparse confines of the Corner Hotel.

Possessing the same watery, tremolo guitar and velvety voice of his recorded output, the lush backing of his recordings has been reduced to ‘Shags’ – his long-haired companion on noise-work and keys, and guest violin duties from one Andrew Watson – certainly losing some of the sweep and drama in the process.

The trembling nostalgia of ‘Darling Hills’ is effective, so too the building intensity of ‘Flightless Bird’ but his esoteric shifts in colour and tone are lost on the patches of punters gravitating to the fringes, as he throws himself headlong into his performance, crooning – then howling – at the mic.

The Trouble With Templeton swiftly follows, the moniker for a talented young folkie called Thomas Calder, flanked by a dapper gent on electric guitar and a lass on keys and backing vocals.

Calder’s voice is a powerful theatrical tool which compliments his darker, acoustic-led strums. With his heavy brow and robust delivery, Calder sounds eerily similar to (little-known) singer/songwriter Tom McRae, with a furtive maturity in craft and lyrical perspective, working through material that seemed to shirk his recent debut Bleeders. Definitely one to watch rise through the ranks.

Joshua Tillman is one who broke such ranks. The former Fleet Foxes drummer has taken flight from the Seattle collective to transform into his sombre solo moniker of J. Tillman, and again into the looser moniker of Father John Misty.

With his new alter ego, Tillman plays to the qualities he previously denied himself of. Namely, his brazen humour and unique outlook as well as his musical influences. Late in the set, when he sings on ‘Everyman Needs A Companion’: “I never liked the name Joshua/and I got tired of ‘J’;” spitting that last consonant like a curse word – you understand the transformation.

Musically it’s not a far cry from his former day job, only mixed with the occasional hair-letting of classic 70s Americana, including its splintered diversions into Laurel Canyon strum and country-influenced rock.

Chiefly though, it’s a wonder how Joshua Tillman ever coped behind the drumkit. He’s a born frontman.

First appearing with what can only be described as a lumberjack’s coat draped across his shoulders, cradling a glass with his furry visage folded into a plain, loose shirt – he looks like a late-night Dean Martin for the Crosby, Stills & Nash crowd; and he’s got the humour to back it up.

Opening with ‘Fun Times In Babylon’ and its gentrified lilt, Tillman hams up his performance with all the swaying and gesturing of a karaoke singer. Known to crack a few gags during his tenure with Fleet Foxes, now that the spotlight is his, every line that passes his lips is a dry-wit killer.

“My shirt came untucked – the show is ruined,” has the crowd guffawing as much as the mid-set jibe, “there’s more… can you believe it?”

His delivery balances his classic showmanship moves mid-song with banter that pokes fun at his own rock star antics; think a comedic Jim Morrison .

His stage presence is as pitch-perfect as his honey-and-whiskey voice; romantically hewn on the dreamy bob of ‘Nancy From Now On’, rambling and footloose on the Southern fried boogie of ‘Writing A Novel.’

Few balance music and mirth with such intriguing ease, with black comedy in his engaging lyrics, such as the chorus of ‘Misty’s Nightmares 1&2’ that dangles the phrase “I’m going to take my life” mid-air, before completing the couplet with “I’m going to take my life back one day.”

Interestingly, Tillman doesn’t touch an instrument all night, freeing him to focus on his performance – thrusting dance moves and all – leaving the tunes to his brilliantly tight five-piece backing band, punctuated by the necessary golden-voiced harmonies, as well as a bass player that looks like ‘J. Mascis Jr’.

Though only eleven songs strong (playing all but one of the tracks from debut Fear Fun) and finishing with a perfunctory nod to his influences with an encore of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Jump Into The Fire’, Father John Misty’s set is nevertheless a memorable one. Funny, entertaining and musically impressive.

Highlights include the brilliant reflection of ‘Now I’m Learning To Love The War’, the chromatic swells of ‘This Is Sally Hatchet’, and a muscular take on ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.’

The latter’s incendiary mid-section divulges into messy noise-rock, allowing Tillman to slip off-stage, only to return with a bottle to swig before he and the band dive back from the chaos to one last smooth refrain.  Most importantly – all the while – the crowd are as having as much fun as he is. Fear Fun? Hardly.

– Al Newstead

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