Joshua Tillman writes his own reviews. At least, he does when faced with a giant screen displaying the Uncut magazine logo. ‘It’s no Vampire Weekend,’ he quips, one of many ventures into stand-up comedy during the course of the evening. It certainly isn’t Vampire Weekend, or the Fleet Foxes – the Seattle band he drums for. Rather, it’s a tormented and at times demented set of bleak blues songs. For the Fleet Foxes’ Huckleberry Finn, think of a bitter Moby Dick. For their summer solstice music, Tillman sings bitter, after-midnight, depths of winter songs. But more on J. later. First, a word or two on his support.
The younger brother of Joshua, Zach Tillman is a different kettle of fish altogether, much though his stage-name (Pearly Gate Music) belies it. Performing solo, with only an acoustic guitar, his songs are considerably lighter in touch. A meandering opener starts off as a song about a girl who’s in love with a guy with herpes, but thereafter loses its touch. A lot of the other songs are better, more comprehensible. He has acquired the Tillman/Fleet Fox talent for melody.
The next support act is again a man with a guitar, though this time plugged in. Lerche’s music, however, is a good deal more exuberant. He stands, he solos and years in earnest for the audience to like his songs. Indeed, I think most of them do. The songs are engaging, as is his sense of humour. He tells us to treasure Scritti Politti ‘like they’re the Beatles,’ before playing The Word Girl. He’s playing somewhere in London on the 19th October, and I recommend him, but see for yourself.
Tillman was inconspicuous enough the couple of times he walked past me to get glasses of red wine, but on stage, where it counts, he had a definite presence. It’s pretty cliché to compare a musician to Jesus, and even easier with folk singers, but it’s also quite hard to avoid the fact that Tillman had a long beard and wore a torn shirt.
Enigmatic is another cliché so often applied to musicians, but the truth is that Tillman’s stage show is full of wild contrasts. Not only between the witty banter with the audience and the music, but from song to song, from the calm of slide-guitar driven songs like When I Light Your Darkened Door to protracted jams where Tillman devastates the percussion section.
Backed by a four-piece band (including Zach on one guitar), he switches from raucous to barren, giving the impression of a demented man enjoying his last hours. It is this quality, I think, which encouraged the pretty accurate observation that there was a similarity to The Doors’ The End.
The spiritual influence in Tillman’s songs might lead one to think of him as a kind of Christ-figure. But if so, it is the Christ no-one knows about, the hours between the last supper and the crucifixion. He had a kind of manic doubt about him, stripping the backing group down to a drum beat as he ranted about ‘the great pop critic in the sky – the great hypocrite who will one day judge my music out of five stars.’
This intensity, matched by a voice quite unlike any other, makes his music superior to the Fleet Foxes, and the even more directly comparable Bon Iver. It’s more primal than Nick Cave’s intellectual style, but lacks the drugged and drunken worldliness of Neil Young’s ‘ditch trilogy,’ which is to my mind the very peak of the genre.
What Tillman does have on Young and Cave is the same affinity with nature that is a feature of the Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver’s music. When the tone is mellow, the percussion feels like heartbeats mixed with lapping waves, and it’s quite beautiful. When wild, steady, subtle guitars are like a still night background to inner torment. It’s not unoriginal – for an act that is nominally classed as folk, some of the music is reminiscent of Pink Floyd, but without the campness. Imagine Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here in a country-folk-blues milieu – which I like – and you’re nearly there.
After an hour and a half’s worth of songs – Fleet Floxes are most certainly the side-project, and not vice-versa – Tillman returned to the stage to play a solo two-song encore. It was a perfect opportunity to lay the tensions inherent in the gig to rest. Instead, after a CSN-esque song calling on us to gather round, he returned to bleakness with James Blues – “Because the universe makes much more sense without a purpose.”
Having started his own review, I could only end by giving Tillman himself the last word. Midway through the set he sang on Laborless Land; “I don’t need a song to tell me what I saw/That blood red morning.” Good news, I suppose, but he keeps on singing.