Father John Misty – ‘Off Key In Hamburg’ review: a timely reminder of the power and beauty of a really good gig

With all proceeds going to the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund, this live album finds Josh Tillman on life-affirming form

We’ve all by now accepted that we won’t be going anywhere for a bit, unless it’s to do a socially distant big shop or to glumly run around the park staying the full height of one Peter Crouch away from any other equally glum joggers. Lamentably, one thing we definitely won’t be doing for the foreseeable is going to a gig or festival.

In these times of recreational and artistic need many artists have been livestreaming shows – last night (March 23) everyone’s favourite cowboy Orville Peck was the latest to join the ranks with a solo Instagram set – but the man also known as Joshua Tillman has instead delved into his archive to entertain the housebound masses (as well as to raise money for the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund, to which the proceeds of this $10 Bandcamp-sold record will go).

Recorded live at the shiny new Hamburg Elbphilharmonie concert hall on August 8 2019 and with accompaniment not just from Father John Misty’s eight-piece band, but the acclaimed Neue Philharmonie Frankfurt orchestra, ‘Off Key In Hamburg’ is a high-end luxury offering. With no glitchy livestream to contend with or the logistical nightmare that would entail getting a full orchestra together at short notice – not to mention the fact that even an orchestra playing to an empty room would count as a verboten mass gathering – this instead is a sumptuous reminder of those big budget blow-out shows that will happen again one day, but not any time soon.

A lavish, 20-song banquet with a 90 minute run-time – well, you’ve got the time now, haven’t you? – the album gracefully tracks Misty’s near decade long career progression from sassy folk hero with a one-liner always on hand to simmering philosophical showman and arch cultural commentator.

Thanks to the sterling work of the Neue Philharmonie Frankfurt, everything here is scattered with a liberal amount of magic dust, elevating it from your normal gig into a swish, Sinatra-style outing. With trilling woodwind and perky brass, ‘Nancy From Now On’ bears more resemblance to a Disney soundtrack than it does the strum-along acoustic BDSM ballad of 2012’s debut ‘Fear Fun’. The grungy stomp of ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’ now shimmers with the added help of a full string section.

Even songs that were originally recorded with a more orchestral backing, such as the symphonic title track from 2017’s ‘Pure Comedy’, benefit from the extra-added finesse and man power. The stripped-back final line of “I hate to say it / But each other’s all we’ve got” might have you feeling a touch weepy in the current climate, especially if the last time you saw your mates was via Houseparty rather than in real life.

The 12 meditative minutes of ‘Leaving LA’ close out the album in bittersweet fashion. As sweeping, sombre strings bed down under Tillman’s acoustic guitar and rolling take-down of his own art, it’s the last lyrics which stand out the most. “I’ve never seen Sunset this abandoned / Reminds me predictably of the world’s end,” he sighs, singing of a deserted Sunset Boulevard in the early hours of New Year’s Day, though he could just as easily be predicting the locked-down street scenes of COVID-19.

Here’s to experiencing gigs that sound as immaculate as this one in the flesh again just as soon as it’s safe to.


Release date: March 23