Upon first listen, there doesn't seem to be many similarities between Maryland-raised, self-mythologizing Father John Misty and Alabama-raised, Grammy-winning roots-rocker Jason Isbell. But after the pair's co-headlining concert on Thursday night at the Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory in Irving, the question left unanswered is not "Why did this happen?" but "How has this not happened before now?"
That question is due to the overall success of the night, and not similarities between the two's music, mind you. There are some intriguing commonalities available to be dissected, and that might make for an entertaining album review or think-piece for music nerds, but the beauty of this live event was in the startling divergence between the two musical styles.
In all fairness, there are some notable circumstantial parallels between Father John Misty, whose real name is Josh Tillman, and Isbell. Both rose to a certain level of prominence as members of a critically adored band before charting a solo path with arguably greater success. Both artists are equipped with brilliant senses of humor, though they are employed in different ways. And, as far as their respective music is concerned, both songwriters effortlessly weave together real-life, first-person narration and colorful, fictional storytelling with a Pulitzer-winning novelist's aplomb.
With the venue set to its "amphitheater" seating, which meant the mammoth garage doors behind the 300 section seats were rolled up to expose the grassy general admission hill behind it, the sun was still present when Father John Misty's set began promptly at 8:15 p.m. Backed by an expert nine-piece band, which featured a brassy horn section, Tillman led his NPR-loving fandom through a collection of tunes taken from each of his Father John Misty records.
Although Father John Misty isn't an overtly retro act, his nods to many musical greats of the past can't be overlooked. Looking a bit like a beach-dwelling, pre-prison Charles Manson, he and his band offered a jangly "Real Love" before rolling the set into an atmospheric direction. Lushly arranged instrumentation and a swelling, highly-climactic close gave many tunes a distinctly Pet Sounds-like vibe, while the horns lent "Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of Them All" a jubilant late-era Beatles bombast.
For a couple of songs from his more recent output "The Palace" and "Pure Comedy," Tillman assumed a sort of lonely lounge singer with an Elton John fixation. Holding only his microphone for both songs, he ambled around as the piano sounds followed, sung in a way that felt more as though he was speaking directly to someone in the audience or to someone over the phone. The triumphant cacophony of "I Love You, Honeybear" was an ideal way to close his portion of the show.
When Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit (which includes his wife, Texas-native Amanda Shires), took the stage at 9:45 p.m. to a ravenous welcome, it was clear who the actual headliner was for this night. Though he's been releasing quality records since his 2007 departure from southern rock titans Drive-By Truckers, the past six years have brought about an unassailable run of records from Isbell, including his most recent Billboard chart topper, 2017's The Nashville Sound.
As enthralling as the more grit-filled, rocking numbers like "Hope the High Road," "24 Frames" and "White Man's World" were, it's impossible to overstate the impact Shires has on an Isbell show. As a supremely talented singer-songwriter, Shires is often on tour with her own band, and isn't a constant member of her husband's crew. But her sweetly harmonic vocal and fiddle contributions to the more delicate numbers, including "Flagship of the Fleet," which Isbell said he only performs when Shires is with him, and "Last of My Kind" are nothing short of pure magic.
A twangy, full-band version of "Maybe It's Time," an Isbell-penned tune that Bradley Cooper famously performed in the blockbuster 2018 Star is Born film remake was a revelation, as was the introduction of a new song, "Overseas," a smokey, blues-rock scorcher.
But with apologies to Isbell and his faultless band, there's little match for the majestic drama that unfolds when he and Shires team up for "Cover Me Up," from his breakthrough 2013 record Southeastern. Not only is the acoustic-driven, anthemic song a true-life confession of love from Isbell to Shires, but it offers a personal mission statement for both Shires and his audience to witness.
In concert, when he sings "But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time," with Shires only a few feet away, it's not only a breathtakingly personal moment, but its a triumphant one. The mightiest cheers and heartiest applause of Thursday night greeted that very line, which provided goosebump-charged proof of the connection between artist and audience.
The differences between Father John Misty and Jason Isbell probably outnumber the similarities. As is the case with many of the best day-long music festivals, a bit of variety is more than welcome, but vital. On Thursday night, the sweet and salty diversity was a winning factor that brought everything happily together.