Words by: Lindsay Colip | Images by: Steven Walter
J. Tillman :: 12.04.09 :: Great American Music Hall :: San Francisco, CA
Great American Music Hall does it again, bringing in J. Tillman for a breathtaking performance at San Francisco's finest venue. He is one gifted musician. You might know him as the drummer of Fleet Foxes, but he'd rather you didn't know him solely for that.
In fact, when the promoters wanted to include his 'other' band on the bill, he agreed, only instead of letting them put "of Fleet Foxes," he made up a completely ridiculous band name. "J. Tillman of Mind Eraser 3000, playing here tonight!" This could be conceived by some as smarty-pants behavior or even a dumb call (why WOULDN'T you put Fleet Foxes, right?), but honestly, Tillman is a star in his own right. He only joined the Foxes last year and before that had put out multiple records. Year In The Kingdom (released September 8, 2009 via Western Vinyl) is Tillman's sixth solo record. I wouldn't want to have to put anyone else's name on my bill to give me cred either with that level of productivity. That being said, my first Tillman album came to me via a huge Fleet Foxes fan we (photographer Steven "Walt" Walter and I) met on a train to Hamburg, Germany after their Roskilde Festival performance (read the Roskilde review here). His adoration of the Foxes made him go deeper into their history as a band and what came of that exploration was the discovery that Tillman had his own project going. And the best part? Tillman was ridiculously talented. His music was stunning. So, whether he wants to be tethered to the Foxes is his own personal decision, but I'm glad for it because it led me to him.
Year In The Kingdom is a gorgeous record. It's a little on the sad side, but not because he's singing about the death of kittens or the end of the world or anything. It's his voice that is so heartbreaking. It's so angelic you can hardly believe it exists. It pierces your soul. It moves you (actually, it'll more likely make you lay down, close your eyes, pause a moment, hold onto the counter top while you hold back the tears, etc). When I first heard the record, I knew it was special, and very unlike much else I'd heard. Lyrically, it's gut wrenching. Instrumentally, it's very bare. It definitely showcases Tillman's voice more than any other instrument. On most of the tracks he's supported ever so slightly by beautiful chimes, guitars, cymbals, keys, some percussion, and a few harmonizing vocals. It's earthy, calm, and gentle. It made me want to get out into nature and listen to whippoorwills, pick dandelions, tumble down a hill, get grass stains on my skirt, float quietly down a river, and lounge lazily on a tree branch. It's earthy AND emotional, and it's damn good. Check out "Year In The Kingdom," "Earthly Bodies," and "Crosswinds" to get a feel of his magic.
A few songs went by at GAMH before Tillman realized his guitar wasn't plugged in. Nobody in the audience noticed because we were too mesmerized by his voice and the fact that he looks exactly like the Geico Caveman. Heavily bearded and extremely longhaired, Tillman says to us, "Can you hear my guitar now? Good because it's amazing. Now I'm going to SHRED." I had forgotten that Tillman was the funny Fleet Fox, usually cracking jokes during their performances. He followed that up, smiling, "Thank you for standing, by the way. Why does my music make people want to sit?"
|J. Tillman :: 12.04 :: San Francisco|
Tillman was onstage with four supporting musicians for most of the show (bass, additional guitar, drums, and keys), which definitely amped up his music. During some songs I felt like I was watching Kasabian; that's how rock 'n' roll, jam heavy, beast-wild they became. Tillman would ditch his guitar and all of a sudden we'd see him banging the crap out of a huge cymbal near the floor, which made him sort of look like, well, a caveman. At other times, they sounded more like Explosions In The Sky with their insane builds and trippy breakdowns. This variety was wonderfully unexpected. They played a lot of his old songs, too, a nice bonus for those of us who were new listeners. If you were like me, coming into this show expecting to see people sitting down, getting melancholy and holding back tears, you were wrong.
Tillman did play a few by himself in an encore, with "Year In The Kingdom" and "Though I Have Wronged You" being two of the most impressive. The audience just kept saying 'whew' and 'wow' after each song; it was THAT moving. Not one person in the audience spoke; everyone was in awe of this gentle giant. His tour ended on December 12, so it might be awhile before you get to see him. In the meantime, pick up any of his records and settle into one of the most exquisite voices of all time.
Continue reading for more pics of J. Tillman in San Francisco...