BERKELEY — One wore his heart on his sleeve and the other conveyed his thoughts through esoteric commentary, yet Jason Isbell and Father John Misty were a compelling pair at the Greek Theatre Saturday night because each was able to keep concertgoers on their toes with their storytelling.
The tour was a co-headlining partnership between Jason Isbell and the 400 Unite and the singer-songwriter, whose real name is Josh Tillman, ,and both acts played sets of equal length after opener Jade Bird canceled her performance due to illness. Isbell’s band went first, kicking things off with twangy rocker “Hope the High Road” before segueing into “24 Frames,” Southern ballad “Something More Than Free” and statement song “White Man’s World.”
“Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for,” Isbell sang on the mid-tempo tune that laments the standing of women and disenfranchisement of other groups.
A new song, possibly called “Ghost Town,” came next. While it retained the Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s signature sound, it had drumming and bass playing reminiscent of ’80s New Romanticism. Then on the acoustic, slide-guitar-led “Last of My Kind,” the band built up to a crescendo that included a monster guitar solo.
Following “Alabama Pines,” which dripped with nostalgia, “Elephant” carried a sense of foreboding with the way the guitarists’ interplay with the keyboard riff.
“I just don’t think I could dance to that song without the piano part,” Isbell said afterward.
Set highlight “Cumberland Gap” broke up the surrounding balladry with a raucous thrill ride. After “Stockholm,” the down-tempo, plodding “Danko/Manuel” was another curveball thrown by the Muscle Shoals act. The latter third of Isbell’s songs hewed to his more earnest ones, such as “Flying Over Water” and “Cover Me Up,” a song that began slowly with Isbell, on acoustic, backed by guitarist playing slide. But again it built up to a wall of sound, including militaristic drumming and bass.
Another highlight was the story Isbell said of how his song “Maybe Its Time” was used by actor Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga on the film A Star Is Born. Long story short, he was at first hesitant to hear Cooper’s version — “Nobody ever heard Bradley Cooper fucking sing.” So when Cooper sent him his version he ignored it at first. In the meantime, Lady Gaga called him to thank him. He was feeding his 2-year-old daughter peanut butter off a spoon at the time, and passed the phone to her — “She’s 2; “gaga—she knows that word.”
He eventually listened to Cooper’s version was impressed, saying it was better than what many musicians in Nashville would have done with it. Then he found Cooper had been anxiously waiting to hear back from Isbell with his approval.
“I made the prettiest raccoon in outer space sweat his ass off,” he said.
Isbell rounded out the set with a blistering cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well;” “Decoration Day,” which he’d written in his time with Drive-By Truckers more than a decade ago; and “If We Were Vampires,” a soft acoustic landing.
Father John Misty went next, backed by an eight-member band that included and was often highlighted by a three-member brass section. His opener was the lounge-influenced “Hangout at the Gallows,” as he faux-stumbled across the stage, he knocked over his mic stand. “Date Night” came next and was one of the show-stopping numbers of the set. The song blended Motown keys with garage-laden guitar playing and a tempo that seemingly flared faster at times.
On “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” the two saxophonists and trumpeter stood out above the cacophonous sound of the other musicians. This would happen from time to time and Father John Misty pointed out later in the set, after one of the brass musicians took a smoke break before the poppy “Real Love Baby,” that “we are missing our horn section, the only ones willing to solo.”
On Mr. Tillman, he name-checked Jason Isbell, which drew a wave of cheers. A wave of Father John Misty’s esoteric genre-ambiguous folk rockers came next, including “Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All,” “Total Entertainment Forever” and “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution.” The latter song, like several others, merrily hopped along but would then be briefly overtaken by a maelstrom of rock, only to return to its folky start.
Following “Ballad of the Dying Man,” a song that had several movements, Father John Misty explained its back story.
“That song came very close to being a Grateful Dead reckoning,” he said. “The only thing is none of us like soloing.”
“Nancy From Now On” was one of the more straightforward pop tunes in the set, but with lyrics about being pushed int he face and concentration camps.
After “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” “Please Don’t Die” culminated in a heart-wrenching plea and was quite possibly Father John Misty’s most earnest song. Then on the next song, the sparse keyboard ballad “The Palace,” he went in the other direction, sighing heavily midway through and then delivering the vocals more like a preacher or a monologist. A song later, he introduced a new tuned (it’s officially unnamed yet though fans have taken to calling it “Time Makes Fools of Us All. The song could both fit a John Hughes film and be a tribute to The Smiths. During the song, he spotted two fans dancing sensually and jokingly demanded that one of them propose to the other immediately. He made the same demand on the following “God’s Favorite Customer,” though whether he was successful remained unclear.
Father John Misty closed out his set with “Pure Comedy,” “I Love You, Honeybear,” “I’m Writing a Novel” and “Holy Shit.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.