Josh Tillman delivered a set full of showstoppers at the week-long London festival
This is how cults start. A wayward, charismatic figure in shades and heavy beard of a whiskey-drunk Jim Morrison hypnotises a congregation of thousands with sweet talk and big promises. Myth, magic and ego collide; before you know it you’re signing your firstborn over to Mistyism and downing a frothing flagon of its cultural Kool-Aid.
Josh Tillman’s followers grow in number with every release, and with good reason. Accompanied by brass and string sections, his music swells and storms like the grandest pseudo-religious rite, steeped in sepia country mythologies and melodies as sweet and alluring as a heatwave shower. His core forebears are obvious – Harry Nilsson, Elton John, The Band, Gram Parsons, Ben Folds if we’re honest – but he makes all of them sound as though they’re fronting Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in full pomp. Every song’s a showstopper; ‘Mr Tillman’ is a euphoric mountain trek of a tune with gold dust caked into its antique mining boots, ‘Please Don’t Die’ is a churchy big ballad built to strip lead from chapel roofs, ‘Pure Comedy’ sounds like Misty’s being shuffled out of a 1930s New Orleans gin joint at dawn with tears in his beard. It’s classic Americana puffing its chest and being as fabulously bombastic as it can be.
Prone to meandering off into self-indulgence on record – his new album ‘God’s Favourite Customer’ is a welcome return to the succinct – occasionally Tillman’s songs trip over themselves live too. ‘I Love You, Honeybear’ is too busy to keep focus and ‘Pure Comedy’ loses its way after Tillman pauses the song to pretend Bjork’s going to pop on for a guest spot. But well-honed unpredictability works for Tillman, particularly at the point in the middle of standard country strumbler ‘Holy Shit’ when the song is suddenly obliterated by a burst of cosmic chaos that sounds like Bjork, annoyed at being roused early from her preparation petal, has ordered a drone strike of explosive pop plasma on the stage. That the song then returns as a beefed-up Hulk of itself is proof of Tillman’s cult-making credentials – he’ll see us through the hellfire and only come back stronger. Praise him, like you should.