Live Review: J.Tillman at the Echo, August 20, 2009

In the canon of shout-outs audience members ejaculate at live shows — from song requests to “I love you” and “Freebird” — Thursday night’s J. Tillman show at the Echo yielded one of the most bizarre:

“I want to live in your beard!”

If Tillman’s waterfall of facial hair was open for residence, he didn’t acknowledge it on this occasion.  In fact, throughout his performance, the Fleet Foxes bandmember seemed only vaguely aware he was performing for a live room.

No relation to Mascis: J. Tillman folks off at the Echo (photo by author).

No relation to Mascis: J. Tillman folks off at the Echo (photo by author).

But what could have been taken as cold indifference to the crowd (probably justified, given that most L.A. audiences are pretty indifferent to live performers themselves) was in fact an artist fully immersed in his material, doing his best to stay in the moment despite the thundering dance music seeping through the floor from the Echoplex below, constantly jeopardizing whatever intimacy he was attempting to manufacture from the stage.

A clue that more was going on in Tillman’s head than impassiveness came early in the set when a bottle shattered behind the bar during a rare quiet moment, a seemingly obscene punctuation which threatened to derail the architecture of the song’s fragility he’d developed to that point.  But as the crash happened just as he turned the song back to the refrain, Tillman simply acknowledged it with a “right on” toss of his index finger, as if it were part of the act, and took the song home.

At other times, Tillman seemed to work in concert with the undulating Echoplex reverberations, taking things from delicate to something much more raucous along the lines of Crazy Horse – and occasionally veering so far off meter as to cruise dangerously close to Jazz Odyssey territory.  None of these explorations came off as overly deliberate (as if he were going out of his way to undo any Fleet Foxes allegiances his audience might have expected); rather they somehow fit side-by-side with his much gentler fare and represented his artistry as a whole.  At the same time, armed with his band consisting of guitar, drums, bass and lap steel guitar, Tillman had more than enough dynamic firepower to keep anyone from mistaking his solo show as a Fleet Foxes redux.

Clad in a ripped shirt with his mane and aforementioned beard flowing freely, it wasn’t hard to imagine Tillman had just emerged from the woodlands, where he no doubt lives off the land and picks up his acoustic guitar only after the evening’s chores are done.  In keeping with that bucolic imagery, there were certainly more than enough moments in his set which evoked the sounds of his main meal ticket, but overall, Tillman proved if nothing else, he’s every bit as accomplished as a solo act as when he’s with his speedy Vulpes brethren.

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