Pluck any line at random from a Jason Isbell song, and more likely than not, you’ve got yourself a bit of poetry.
Same goes for the singer-songwriter Josh Tillman, who performs under the moniker Father John Misty — his lyrics tend to linger, suffusing the body with a slow burn like a slug of whiskey.
But, as is often said about beauty and the eyes of those who behold it, poetry hits you differently depending upon your expectations.
Such was the case Thursday night in Irving at the Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory, where both artists, nearing the end of a monthlong co-headlining tour wrapping up this weekend, delivered superlative performances, but only one was applauded in commensurate fashion.
The venue wasn’t quite sold out, but was comfortably full for a weekday night — perhaps because Isbell and Father John Misty have each recently been through town: Isbell in January 2018, and Father John Misty in September 2017 (all right, at least recently enough, and in a weird quirk, both shows were at the Bomb Factory).
The juxtaposition of louche and earnest was intriguing to watch play out, as Father John Misty’s hourlong set trafficked in the sort of sophisticated pop-rock that is vanishingly rare among mainstream acts.
Tillman, clad in sunglasses that made his eyes as impenetrable as his lyrics, comported himself, as he wryly noted midway through, like “the guy who sells weed out of the back of his jet-ski dealership.” With an impressive array of nine band members backing him, the Los Angeles-based troubadour pulled from across his catalog, dipping into lush melodies (“Nancy from Now On,” “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” the show-opening “Real Love Baby”) and leaning into raw-nerved dispatches from his personal abyss (the searing “The Palace”).
However, at least in section 200, where I was situated, the audience was, shall we say, feeling chatty and not particularly in a mood for nuance.
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“Right now, I understand why Robin Williams killed himself,” muttered a man in the row behind me as “Pure Comedy” drew to a close. As non sequiturs go, it’s a doozy — which begs the question of whether Tillman, himself no stranger to peculiar asides, would appreciate the sheer strangeness of articulating bemused displeasure with a musician in such fashion.
Regardless, Father John Misty pressed on, simultaneously seeming to mock the conventions of 21st concert staging, with Tillman saying “Toyota Music Factory” with so much acid that it’s a wonder his mic stand didn’t dissolve in front of him, and embracing the catharsis of a crowd bathed in lights and smoke, lost in the musical moments.
From the moment Isbell and his five-piece 400 Unit stepped onstage, it was clear there would be nothing resembling apathy for the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and his collaborators. The roar greeting Isbell never really subsided, as there were pockets of lusty whoops and cheers throughout his 75-minute set, and more than one enthusiastic singalong.
For his part, Isbell, sporting some well-manicured facial hair, seemed just as eager to be in front of those assembled. “What a beautiful night for some rock n’ roll music,” he shouted.
As always, Isbell’s durable but vulnerable country-tinged rock songs were breathtaking in their clarity and presentation, allowing for heartrending lines — “How could we expect the two to stay in love/When neither knew the meaning of/The difference between sacred and profane?” from “Children of Children” still lacerates — and woolly guitar solos, threaded with steel guitar and fiddle, from Isbell’s better half, Amanda Shires.
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Shires helped Isbell provide plenty of goosebump moments juiced with a visceral intimacy, not least of which was a time-stopping rendition of “Flagship,” from Isbell’s masterful 2015 LP Something More Than Free.
The pair’s voices entwined like lovers’ knowing fingers; hearing them weave around one another and harmonize is an extraordinary thing.
But where Father John Misty feinted toward provocation, Isbell embraced conciliation, sharing his thoughts on “Maybe It’s Time,” his contribution to Bradley Cooper’s Oscar-nominated A Star Is Born.
“It’s kind of perfect,” Isbell observed, explaining he was in the movie without having to actually appear. (Like Tillman, however, Isbell wasn’t above a barbed comment: A Star Is Born “must be science fiction, because in the movie, this song is a hit.”)
What both artists employ is a willingness to bare their souls, albeit in radically different ways.
Both men are compelling figures — there’s more than a little sense of Tillman howling from behind his mask, while Isbell, having gutted it out and clawed his way out of his own personal hell, hides next to nothing — and the opportunity to see them share a bill was a rare treat those in attendance should savor having sampled.