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Thursday, July 29, 2010

J. Tillman at Bottom of the Hill

Posted By on Thu, Jul 29, 2010 at 8:53 AM

J. Tillman

July 28, 2010
@ Bottom of the Hill

Better than: All the other epically bearded folksters with acoustic guitars.

It was a pretty unassuming start to the set -- some bearded guy entered the stage, sat on a chair with an acoustic guitar, and with basically no introduction, launched into a song.

The beard's owner, Joshua "J." Tillman, is also the drummer for Fleet Foxes, and while his solo folk career clearly echoes that of the baroque indie rock group, Tillman has been doing his own thing since 2004. (Fleet Foxes formed in 2008). He's about to release his 7th album, Singing Ax, on September 14th. Of the few audience members who made the start of Tillman's set, not many had any idea who he was. Some girl in the bathroom summed it up: "I heard the opening guy on the Internet, J. Tillman? He sounded pretty good." So the bar was set pretty low, as Tillman acknowledged during his show.

Low bar or not, the boy can sing. I was surprised that one man and a guitar could fill any space, even a BOH-sized one. But from his first song, "Three Sisters," the rich tones and older-than-29-years weariness really did nab attention; save for the occasional toilet flush and sizzling burger, the room was mostly silent and engaged.

Tillman channeled southern gothic sentiments -- all heartbroken, beautiful and rough. It was whisky-drenched, hushed and gorgeous, like a score for a Flannery O'Connor novel. His set was a wandering and introspective preview of songs from the new album.

Tillman's solo guitar strumming added a warm, if forgettable, accompaniment to his even vocals. Only a few times did Tillman break his tempered mellowness to explore his higher range. As a result, songs never took off and rarely reached a climax. After a few songs that sounded similar, the crowd's energy grew a bit restless.

His songs use the third person to tell stories about hard-living Americans. He sings about people who are "clawing at dirt and dying in birth" -- not exactly the crowd last night. While that kind of point-of-view songwriting works for a lot of artists -- like the Decemberists -- it was really hard to relate to Tillman's lyrics last night.

Tillman best showed his chops as a songwriter on the few numbers about feelings that everybody gets -- heartbreak, betrayal, redemption. Occasionally, it got a little heavy-handed. On a totally new track he performed, Tillman sang: "What can redeem us but love, but what kind of end can love spare us all from?" In the moment it was a thoughtful, lonely question. But written just now, without the dulcet tones of Tillman's voice, it reads a little cringe-worthy.

Though the set was only eight songs long, it took awhile for him to warm up to the crowd. His first comment to the audience was "insert inane and arbitrary banter" -- not exactly a warm welcome. After a while he did insert banter, on topics ranging from Fox News to texting while driving (He and Justin Bieber share the same sentiment: don't do it).

And while his interactions with the audience were weird and hilarious -- and therefore inclusive -- his song selection was alienating. I wasn't alone in my desire to hear more songs from his breakthrough album, Year in the Kingdom -- those tunes are also a tad more varied and textured than many of the ones he chose to perform.

Luckily, his short performance managed to resist feeling like an open mike night at a coffee house. Instead it was impressive and warm. And though a lot of his music could float in the background, he re-affirmed his stunning talent on songs like "No Occasion," from Vacilando Territory Blues. On the album, the song has a rich, sad string section, which Tillman recreated last night with ghostly oh's and ah's. It was a haunting and bone-chilling end to the set.

I left the show thinking that Tillman's talent is wasted behind a drum kit (in Fleet Foxes), and that maybe he should play bigger shows on his own. But really, he seems perfect at the scale of last night, making weird-ass stage conversation and performing his quiet songs in an intimate venue.

Critics Notebook:

Personal bias: Always a sucker for a lustrous beard and a pretty voice, I'm a J. Tillman (and Fleet Foxes) fangirl. I recommend Vacilando Territory Blues to everyone, and found it difficult to resist swooning during most of the set.

To the artist: J. Tillman, you are so engaging when you open your eyes -- look up more when you sing.

Stage banter:

J. Tillman: "Are there any questions or comments?"
Audience member: "Nice Shirt!"
J. Tillman: (in a plaid shirt) "This shirt is a comment. I'm a big faker. I live in the city and dress like an asshole."

J. Tillman: "Does anyone know any songs of mine?"  (two audience members call out songs). "Oh my confidence just went through the fucking roof ... so much that my collar went up."

J Tillman: "I used to clean pools in the summer in Maryland. I once cleaned Patrick Ewing's pool. Put that in your pipe, audience."

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Allison Davis


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