“This is great, you don’t have to cheer for that,” deadpans Josh Tillman as a smattering of whistles and applause greet his arrival on stage. “It was pretty lazy of me. But I thank you for your faith.”
Tillman, a tall, commendably hirsute figure, has a fine line in flint-dry humour, which he seems more than happy to indulge himself in many times during his 90+ minute set. After a slow, sedentary “Firstborn”, for instance, he stares out into the crowd and drawls, “This is no Vampire Weekend show, for sure.”
In every respect, Tillman’s set differs from Sondre Lerche’s. Lerche has a kind of cheery enthusiasm that borders on the puppyish. A skinny and fresh-faced 26 year-old from Norway, Lerche looks like he could pass for, say, John Cusack’s younger, hipster brother in an indie rom-com. His set is heart-warming, skittering between folk and punky riffing, the songs brimming with melodic zest. A surprise highlight is his cover of Scritti Politti’s “Word Girl”, with Lerche strumming almost abstractly on his guitar. “I don’t care about the rain,” he says. “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s finish with a song about Australian actor George Lazenby.” And he does. You might think”Like Lazenby“, in which he compares his romantic travails to the man who failed to make the grade as James Bond, might appear strange, if not glib. But it’s hard not to find something touching in lines like “Endless opportunities I squandered on the way to this event/Just like Lazenby/Can I do it over? Don’t I get a second try?”.
On record, Tillman (a solo artist for nearly five years before joining Fleet Foxes as drummer in Summer last year) favours a sparse, acoustic sound. His songs are subdued and melancholic – mostly, it’s just his vocals and guitar, with the occasional addition of a mandolin, piano or perhaps drums. So it comes as some surprise tonight when he appears on stage accompanied by a full band – fellow Seattlites drummer Jason Merculief, brother Zach Tillman on bass, guitarist Colin Wolberg and pedal steel player Bill Patton. Things start off simple enough – a song like “No Occasion”, from this year’s Vacilando Territory Blues, is close enough to its recorded version, just fleshed out comfortably by the extra instrumentation, and Tillman’s voice, with gentle levels of reverb, is comfortably foregrounded in the mix. “Laborless Land” features some beautiful pedal steel playing from Patton that even silences the chattering back at the bar.
About 40 minutes later, though, the stage of the Garage is transformed, with Tillman down on his knees, hair flailing, leading the band in a heavily psychedelicised version of “Crosswinds”. In fact, reviewing Vacilando Territory Blues for UNCUT earlier this year, Luke Torn cited Neil Young’s On The Beach as one of several touchstones for Tillman’s album. And, indeed, live you sense Tillman is equally in touch with his inner Crazy Horse – the delicate dulcimer intro to “Crosswinds” is morphed into a churning riff, like something Young might have blasted out from the stage at the Fillmore in the early 70s.
It’s this Tillman who I find most impressive. I guess I’m so used to the hushed intimacy of his solo albums, or the baroque harmonies of Fleet Foxes, that I’m surprised and impressed by this sudden detour into heavier territory. Certainly, a song like “There Is No Good In Me”, where Tillman sings of “rendering families from their home,” that he “may lay claim to their young,” assumes a darker, gnarled form in this meaty version. A 10-minute “Though I Wronged You” segueing into “Barter Blues” builds from a simple, haunting melody into an extended jam that reminds me of Young’s “Cortez The Killer”, driven by a squalling pedal steel solo from Patton. He breaks curfew, but who cares?
J Tillman set list:
All U C
Big Ol’ Betty
Jammin’ The Night Away
Though I Have Wronged You/Barter Blues
Terror Lives Forever Pt. 2
Occurrence At The River Jordan
There Is No Good In Me
New Imperial Grand Blues
Wild Honey Tastes Good
James Boffington Blues