For most rising stars at the Austin City Limits Festival, the looming question is whether they have the goods to connect with a festival audience on a larger stage. But in Father John Misty’s case, the only real issue is whether festival stages are big enough for his stadium-ambitious performance.
If it’s all just an act — and it is, as he laid plain by following an over-the-top, crowd-surfing, phone-video-shooting midset moment by intimately imparting to the crowd, “Rama lama ding dong” — it’s a highly entertaining and effective one. Misty (aka Josh Tillman) writes spectacular melodies and has a vocal presence that would be mesmerizing even if he were just delivering his lines straight. That he chooses a more theatrical approach is his blessing or his curse: He’s increasingly becoming a love-it-or-hate-it artist, but he seems well aware and welcoming of that distinction.
On Saturday afternoon, it was easy to be impressed, even if you don’t totally buy in. The piano ballad “Bored in the USA” was a high point, putting the spotlight on Tillman’s expressive vocals as he reeled off a litany of misguided American dreams: useless education, subprime loans, Craftsman homes, prescription pills. His preposterously titled song “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” from this year’s album “I Love You, Honeybear,” rang out radiantly into the clear late-summer air like a pop smash from yesteryear, rich with melodic support from his five-piece band.
Tillman delivered most of his vocals either wandering the stage (and sometimes out in the crowd) with the microphone or playing acoustic guitar at the mic stand, but for the set’s finale, he strapped on an electric and the band cranked up the volume considerably. The intensity continued to build until Tillman finally fell to the stage in faux-convulsions, aping either sexual ecstasy or religious rapture but leaving that distinction to the eye of the beholder. Whatever your pleasure, the performance was a marvel, one that could have come from an after-dark headliner — even as it perfectly fit the vibe of a sunny Saturday afternoon.