Five quick thoughts on The Walkmen and Father John Misty's show Thursday at Newport Music Hall:
(1) Father John Misty's Fear Fun was one of those indie sleeper hits that seemed to build a consensus without an especially zealous media blitz. To be fair, it's on Sub Pop, which among indie labels is actually as close to pop as it gets, and is an offshoot of Fleet Foxes, arguably the best-loved, most widely known "indie" band in the world these days. So it's not like J. Tillman was crawling out from under a rock when he opted to focus on his solo career — a solo career that actually existed long before Tillman joined Robin Peckinold's chapter of the CSNY fan club, mind you. Still, the record seemed to build steam the old-fashioned way, word of mouth rendering Tillman a lightweight people's champion. In keeping with Father John Misty's subtle, steady saturation of the indie rock sphere, there is something especially understated, almost guarded about the band's take on lite pop. The songs are gorgeous, and Tillman's vocal cords hit like artisanal angelic sledgehammers, but he exudes a cooler-than-thou aura that makes me feel like he's afraid to fully connect with his audience. As Way Yes percussionist Tim Horak put it in our correspondence after the show, "His music impacts people. He needs to nurture and appreciate that."
(2) What compounds my frustration about Tillman's frigid persona is that when he drops the ultra-cool facade and cuts loose, he's a hell of an entertainer. I understand that there's some appeal to an unshakably smooth lounge singer, but Tillman's excursions into wild contortion were among the finest moments of Father John Misty's set. The highlight by far was when his band followed suit, ramping up the intensity for the closing "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" until waves of fuzz-rock power rippled from the stage.
(3) I could level a similar complaint against The Walkmen, though I wonder how much different my experience might have been if the guitars were a couple notches louder. I've seen these guys numerous times before, and every time they performed with a ferocity they only occasionally approached on their records. Alas, more often than not Thursday's set felt like a fulfillment of the "Walkmen settle down" meme. The band has accumulated a stellar collection of songs over the years, and merely hearing Hamilton Leithauser's cat-scratch caterwaul is a pleasure, so they're not likely to put on a bad show. I just prefer my Walkmen with some oomph, something the majority of this performance did not provide. Graceful? Yes. Exquisite? Most certainly. Just not the drunken sucker punch Walkmen shows can be. Maybe electrifying power is not the right rubric for this band anymore.
(4) Leithauser, though, could teach J. Tillman a lot about how to be utterly cool without emotionally stiff-arming your audience. Effortlessly dapper with his black suit and product-infused blond coif, the Walkmen singer sipped his cocktail, cracked numerous smiles and generally came off like a jovial chap. He might have just been happy to be playing a grand old concert hall like the Newport after repeat visits to the corporate dungeon that is The Basement.
(5) One more note about the depth of The Walkmen's catalog: "The Rat" is universally regarded as the group's signature song, so to slot it second was a ballsy move. It reminded me of when I scored free tickets to see Duran Duran at Polaris Amphiteatre in 2000 and they played "Hungry Like the Wolf" second. But Duran Duran pulled it off because they're far more than a one-hit wonder. Similarly, The Walkmen's performance did not suffer in the slightest having removed the question of when the big hit might pop up. Instead, we were free to appreciate how much ground this band has covered in a decade. Revisiting so much superb music with them was a joy, even I'm still waiting for them to come back for a second encore and bludgeon me with "Little House of Savages."