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Why We Can't Have Nice Things: The J Tillman Edition

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 6, 2010 6:30PM

J Tillman, solo at the Empty Bottle / Photo by Robert Loerzel
Getting lost in layers of sound can be fun; so can complex structures, intricate melodies and levels cranked up to 11. But when an artist whose music is untouched and raw plays for you, simplicity and the brute force of talent trump everything. Josh Tillman plays with an acoustic guitar, no effects, and one knockout voice.

Too bad it was wasted on folks at his show last night at the Empty Bottle.

An Open Letter to Josh Tillman

Dear Josh,

We bet you’re excited about the release of your upcoming album, Singing Ax; we are too. This is what, your seventh solo release now? Despite joining those mega successful Fleet Foxes as their drummer in 2008, you’ve remained committed to your solo work, and have crafted a spare, lovely album in Ax. It doesn’t have the personal stories or faint Biblical imagery of some of your previous efforts like Year In the Kingdom, but it’s still poignant music that, if we do say so ourselves, gets better with repeated listens.

As you may be aware, it’s the height of festival season in Chicago, concertgoers are rowdy, restless and excited. But, that doesn’t excuse straight-up bad behavior, right? We’re speaking specifically of those awful folks at your show last night, the one-third of the audience—comprised entirely of selfish asshats—that could not seem to, as the kids like to say, STFU. They were in the minority, but minorities can be vocal. And they can drown out your pared-down guitar work.

When you opened with the slow, haunting “Three Sisters,” we thought “wow, his voice is even more compelling live than on the record!” The deliberate beats in between your lyrics and jangly, withheld strumming we assume were supposed to be filled with silence, though the drunk folks chatting about their brunch plans apparently weren’t having any of it.

Maybe you were trying to give everyone a hint with “Diamondback,” where occasionally your soft voice climbed into a howl (each note perfectly sustained! Way to go!) before falling into whispers again. The longing in the lyrics, the nature imagery—well, what we heard of it—we sure liked.

Your fans in the audience were getting visibly irked, mouthing things like “come on!” and “seriously?” as yet another cackle of inappropriately loud laughter and meandering conversation from the crowd muddled your set. We appreciate you saying early on that with the noise level (which you were cool with, you said, acknowledging that the show was in a bar after all) you wouldn’t be as chatty. It wasn’t because you were in a “mood,” or upset, but that with the crowd being as loud as it was, you weren’t going to shout over it. You even said that you were very happy to be there with us in Chicago.

“Our Beloved Tyrant” is one of your songs that evoke very palpable feelings of heartbreak and loss. There were swirls of emotions in that song, all of them laid bare with that stellar voice of yours as you tried to communicate this somewhat obscure narrative.

Somehow, even in the middle of your set these fantastically rude people in the audience who were ruining the show refused to can their chatter. You said with grace, but appropriate edge: “It’s not hippie bullshit when we say the audience is part of the experience. [This is] brutal. It’s really brutal.”

You played a few more songs, including what we think was “A Seat at the Table;” gorgeous melodies, a nice swelling build near the end—quite a feat when it’s just you sitting up there with your guitar—some whistling, and a really lush sound. Maybe if we had karate chopped that girl in the throat standing behind us who kept running her trap, we could have said for sure what song you ended with.

In conclusion, Josh, what we’d really like to say is: sorry. Sorry that a good deal of people who paid their good money to hear you play felt that their idle chit chat was more important than your music. We’re sorry for ourselves that we paid our good money to hear you play, and were robbed of that experience. What you got from that crowd was not the Midas Touch, but the Sadim Touch—you gave us gold, we gave you shit. You soldiered on, even though you would have been totally justified in flipping us the bird and walking off stage. We’re appreciative that you didn’t. You deserved a lot better, and we hope you’ll come back to Chicago. Please don’t hold this one against us.

All the best,