Father John Misty in Concert: A Lesson in Gyrating and Poor Audience Etiquette
With bravado like Mick Jagger and an appearance like a strange hybrid of Jethro Tull, Johnny Cash, and Liberace – Father John Misty is an immediately-recognizable and captivating performer. His October 17th show at The Wiltern showed him at his best, and some of his fans at their worst.
Hours before Father John Misty’s performance at The Wiltern, his legion of fans begin congregating outside the theater. They look like an Urban Outfitters catalogue crossbred with the crowd of a Chicago dive bar in the thick of winter. The women wear ironic t-shirts and jeans or nice dresses stripped of their formality by the obligatory pair of converses. The men are bearded. They wear the expected garb – obscure podcast t-shirts, flannels, Father John Misty merchandise – but most importantly, they are bearded. The few who aren’t bearded are strange contradictions: They’re extremely clean-cut, but will unabashedly claim the desire to live like Thoreau. They call themselves progressive, but won’t hesitate to scream about the difficulties of being white. The Atlantic would rightfully call them Berniebros.
Before the show starts, the self-righteousness that could only be found at a concert for an artist like Father John Misty – a sort-of modern day Lothario who recently found stability in an equally enigmatic artist named Emma – rears its head. A small argument erupts after a female fan mentions to a male fan that they should be excited for the concert because of “the way [Father John Misty] performs.” The male fan takes this as an insinuation that he has never seen Father John Misty1 perform before. He says as much and the fans retreat back into the safety of their respective friend groups.
Once the doors open at The Wiltern, the awkward aggression amongst the crowd escalates. Several of the aforementioned non-bearded bros insult every person around them in act that may be intended as “ironic” but feels anything but. Everyone around the trio pretends not to notice, but it’s clear the vibe is much less positive than you’d expect at a show for a modern hippie icon. If there were a theme for the crowd, it would be solipsism. Many of Father John Misty’s fans fail to acknowledge the presence or validity of the people around them. One couple in particular squats on the floor smoking a cigarette as a woman directly adjacent covers her mouth to keep from choking. This apparent victim, however, welcomes three of her friends, all of whom are quite tall, to stand in front of another group of fans who had been patiently waiting for the show to start. Despite the early drama, the crowd quiets as the lights dim and the opener steps out.
Mikail Cronin, a high-energy singer-songwriter, emerges with his band to the sound of hushed applause. It seems as if the crowd is more excited for the show to be making any progress towards the eventual appearance of Father John Misty than it is to hear music. This lack of energy persists throughout Cronin’s set. As Cronin and his band dig into tracks off his latest album MCIII, as well as some relatively unknown (to myself and the most of rest of the crowd) tracks off of his past albums, the audience responds unenthusiastically. The tracks are fun and encourage movement, but there are only a handful of people even nodding their heads. The performance is good, but the fans are borderline disrespectful. It feels like most people are annoyed that they even have to sit through an opening act. This lack of engagement unfortunately bleeds into the band’s performance. As the set goes on, they detach from the crowd and begin making inside jokes to each as they play. While it’s funny to watch Cronin’s drummer continuously insult the keyboardist2 then nod to the bassist, it’s hard knowing they have all but given up on drawing in the crowd. Meanwhile, Cronin bashes away at his guitar like a madman, begging for people to get excited. He manages to tear through three of his guitar strings by the end of the set. However, his energy is wasted, as the only substantial applause during the whole set comes when Cronin asks if everyone is excited for Father John Misty. They answer is a resounding yes. Cronin and his band end their set with spectacular energy and trot off, but very few audience members seem to care.
After a brief intermission, the lights dim again. This time, the energy in the room is borderline manic. As classical music floods the stage and Father John Misty’s band3 walks out, the crowd waits on the verge of pandemonium. Of course, the bearded leader of this messy, self-important congregation emerges – and The Wiltern erupts in shrieks and guttural shouts. It’s a hipster bacchanal with less wine and more e-cigarettes.
Father John Misty dives into “I Love You, Honeybear,” the title track off his latest album, with enough gyrating and sexual fervor to give Tipper Gore a stroke. His fans, the type to feign dispassion in any other situation, respond like schoolgirls at an Elvis concert – reaching out their arms in the hopes that they’ll be able to touch the ironic Jesus-like figure on stage. Father John Misty obliges, kneeling at the edge of the stage and grabbing ahold of several fans for a brief moment. He knows he has them mystified like a mythological siren…who hasn’t shaved in months (maybe years).
During the song, the most jarring physical piece of the set illuminates: a massive neon heart contains the words, “No Photography.” It’s obviously intended to be ironic, as there are no signs dissuading photography, nor any pre-show warnings. Still, it’s uncomfortable watching a mass of people who so readily claim to connect with a man who thrives on mocking the current state of society only view their hero through an iPhone screen. Father John Misty continues into a couple more tracks from I Love You, Honeybear before breaking into “Only Son of a Ladiesman”, a song from his 2012 release, Fear Fun – his first solo album as Father John Misty.4 This song ignites the audience, many of whom seem much more interested in the egotistical, sex-obsessed, ayahuasca-consuming figure from Fear Fun than the slightly less-egotistical, still sex-obsessed, romantically-softened man who exists on I Love You, Honeybear.
Father John Misty feeds off the energy from the crowd. However, the crowd’s response to this energy is occasionally less-than-positive. During the opening of “Chateau Lobby #4,” one of the most sentimental tracks on I Love You, Honeybear, a fight breaks out. Father John Misty stops the song and waits for order to be restored. He jests about the ordeal, mocking how such a heartfelt song could send someone into a “testosterone-fueled rage,” but it’s obvious he’s bothered by the whole ordeal. This frustration grows later in the show, as a brief pause after “Bored in the USA” quickly devolves into the audience screaming at him to perform their favorite songs (most of which are off of Fear Fun). After humoring the shouting for a few moments, Father John Misty tells the crowd to “Shut the fuck up,” reminding them this is “[his] show” and they’ll enjoy it if they just let him perform. Everybody laughs at these barbs. Father John Misty has become known, and beloved, for his witticisms and acerbic sense of humor, so the audience takes this aggression to be a complete joke. Father John Misty is certainly in on that joke, but the audience isn’t “in” on his apparent annoyance.
Father John Misty’s attitude is the most intriguing part of the second half of the show. While it’s clear he’s playing a character of sorts, that character seems to disdain the audience. He flicks his sweat onto the crowd and smirks. At one point, he notices an audience member in the front row recording him and takes the phone. What proceeds could receive an entire article of analysis on its own: Father John Misty records himself singing, and then comments on how the phone’s owner will eventually have to erase the video when he goes to record another concert. He takes jabs at the owner’s desire to view the show through his phone screen as the crowd laughs at the victim. However, Father John Misty isn’t content to let these fans mock an individual while emulating his actions. He decries the fact that the audience loves what’s transpiring because it reflects a “culture warrior moment,” even though they’re all recording the event on their phones. In more words, he calls everyone hypocrites. The audience eats it up.
The performance crescendos with a vigorous performance of “The Ideal Husband.” Father John Misty screams the song’s final lyrics as his band frantically plays and the stage becomes a light show. He slams the mic stand down on the final beat and leaves the stage. The house lights come on, but nobody leaves. After some light clapping, the house lights dim. However, the break after the song has allowed the audience to retreat back into disaffection. While most fanbases shriek, scream, clap, and stomp to earn an encore, this crowd expects it. Father John Misty still returns though. However, his encore is not entirely normal. Instead of diving directly into a song, he opens the floor to a Q&A session. It’s a novel idea, though it’s made slightly less novel by Father John Misty commenting on how novel it is. The fans though, see this as an opportunity to turn the attention towards themselves. They shout out inane questions like, “Do you brush your beard?” and “What kind of lotion do you use?” Of course, Father John Misty is more than happy to answer these questions with his trademark jokes. Once the humor is exhausted though, the crowd falls into an awkward silence, despite the fact that Father John Misty is still goading them to ask more questions. Soon enough, fans begin shouting song requests and he grabs his guitar. He strums the beautiful, “I Went to the Store One Day” as his band saunters back out. They close on Fear Fun’s “Everyman Needs a Companion” and the show concludes. As the house lights come on, Father John Misty kindly signs album covers for several fans leaning over the front of the stage. For a man who has made a living off of being self-important, he seems genuinely thoughtful.
Father John Misty’s highlights a performer in conflict: With Fear Fun, he presented himself as a man hell-bent on excess and self-destruction in the name of discovery. On I Love You, Honeybear, he’s a man that has begun to find himself with the help of a lover. These two men have things in common: intense sexual appetites, disregard for social mores, and extreme self-awareness. However, this newer man, the man on Honeybear, is softer and more concerned with the ramifications of his actions. The audience at The Wiltern doesn’t seem to understand this man yet. Despite the critical acclaim for I Love You, Honeybear, it would be difficult to assume anyone understands this man. After only just being introduced to their new unethical hippie hero three years ago, it may be difficult for Father John Misty’s congregation to accept him as a more temperate figure. Until they do, or Father John Misty discovers a new iteration of himself, his concerts may continue to be an awkward clash of sentimentality and aggression.