‘I’m Sufjan Stevens and I’ll be your entertainment this evening.’
Those were the first spoken words of Sufjan‘s set and they came around 8:45pm, after opening with the title track from 2004’s Seven Swans (one of the only older songs performed throughout the night). Over 2 hours later I was walking out of the Paramount Theatre a little dazed and confused, not sure if I’ve ever been so immersed in a performance before. Over 2 hours and I didn’t even get up once for a smoke break, a drink, bathroom…nothing. He even had me dancing along with the rest of the crowd and I hadn’t had an ounce to drink. Quite the opposite of what I had expected from this show.
Illinois took awhile to grow on me, but I do believe it is one of the best albums of the past decade. That being said, I have never had much desire to see Sufjan live. I saw an Austin City Limits special once with him and a bunch of musicians wearing wings and silly costumes and it just seemed too campy, too artsy for my taste. This was music best enjoyed in the privacy of my own world. But over the past month or so I have become obsessed with his new, experimental, electronic album, The Age of Adz. The polarizing album that has some fans questioning if he is maturing or regressing as an artist. Gone are the angelic folk songs, gone are the United States history lessons and gone are some of his fans. At first I agreed with the guy who said ‘using every glitch, sound and auto-tune and throwing in some Bowie doesn’t make you original…’, but I was a believer when I decided to go to this show and now I’m pretty sure it is one of my favorite albums (and shows) of the year.
Almost the entire set consisted of material of The Age of Adz and the companion EP, All Delighted People. If this disappointed anyone, you couldn’t tell during the show. The applause was deafening after every song and every song deserved the praise it received. Each one it’s own isolated piece of work, each one separated by different costumes, lighting, instrument changes and Sufjan speeches. He spoke (sometimes too much) about the meaning of a lot of the new tracks as well as the process that led him to take his art to a completely different place. Once he removed himself from writing music in term of themes (states, etc), he felt like he was going through adolescence again and in this adolescence he started experimenting with instruments, sounds and electronic tools.
These songs of ‘love, heartache and the end of the world’ do have a theme though…inspired by the story of a Louisiana sign-artist, Royal Robertson, who had severe metal problems; an artist Sufjan can relate to. An artist that shows him he’s not the only one in this world with problems. (check wikipedia for the 10 minute history lesson he gave us during the show)
After the opening, folksy, Seven Swans, the show became a mix between concert, performance art and dance show. The stage had 11 musicians on guitar, trumpet, piano, keyboard, 2 drum kits (at the same time), mixing boards and vocals. Too Much and Age of Adz, which were ‘very difficult to sing’, brought the show to a level I never expected. The sound building up from Sufjan‘s quiet voice to erratic sounds that shook us in our seats. Sufjan, sporting a visor with blinking lights, silver rave pants and a Tony the Tiger t-shirt, moved around as if choreographed to get himself to ‘wake up’ because coming from Seattle where they were at sea level and now being ‘a mile and a half up’ made him feel like he was ‘underwater’. Even though you would have thought from his outfit and dance moves that he felt like he was in the 80’s.
The All Delighted People material peppered in throughout the show was a nice break form the electronic music, but to be honest, I could do without it. I would have preferred the slower songs come from the back catalog, but these songs were far and few between.
The conversation did turn dark quite a few times, especially before Vesuvius when he spoke about ‘wide open spaces’; places like Crater Lake, The Plains, The Great Lakes and Niagara Falls. Places of such magnitude ‘you just want to throw yourself in‘. ‘We have self-preservation’, but there is ‘something beautiful about giving in to the magnitude‘. A pretty poetic way to talk about suicide, but dark just the same. You have to wonder if this has something to do with the serious health issues he dealt with last year. This line of thought continued into Now That I’m Older when he announced that from the time we are ‘20 minutes old we have E. coli living in our nose, just waiting’.
When Impossible Soul started I couldn’t help but get anxious. The song is 25 minutes long and was (until that moment) my least favorite on the album. But this sprawling, epic song became a highlight of the night. Building and building until everyone was out of their chairs, on their feet and dancing along. Trumpets blaring, the female backup vocalist/dancers up front and cheering the crowd on…the party when on for about 20 minutes before the light abruptly went down and Sufjan finished it out by himself, his voice bringing us back down with ease.
I figured that would be the end and I would have been satisfied, now believing that I really do like the new material more than anything he had ever done before. But then he surprised me again. Chicago reminded how amazing Illinois really is and the crowd went ballistic…bringing those deafening cheers to a whole new level. After teasing us with that single song from his biggest album, he left the stage and all of us in awe. 2 hours had flown by.
When he came back out he was by himself. The acoustic encore contained Concerning the UFO Sighting and To Be Alone With You, ending with the creepy John Wayne Gacy, Jr... a song about the serial killer that closes with ‘And in my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floor boards for the secrets I have hid’. Bringing a night of art and song and dance back to the dark side; a dark place that almost seemed appropriate considering he is the artist who throughout the night informed us he has ‘multiple personalities’, was ‘working through his issues’ onstage and announced ‘that’s the end of the therapy session‘ after the first set.
Sufjan is definitely an artist first and a musician second. He is a student of art, philosophy, history and the occult. He mixes and sometimes smashes mediums together in what would become a mess in the wrong hands, but he manages to put on a show and make music that crashes through boundaries of pop music and to the edges of avant-garde without becoming so artsy it discourages the casual listener/observer from enjoying every minute of it.
Other interesting sidenotes: Scalpers were getting $100 a ticket. DM Stith opened the show and played piano for Sufjan’s set. There was no material from Michigan. The seats in the Paramount we uncomfortable as hell. There were more beards in the audience than I have ever seen at a show before.
(all solo acoustic versions)
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
To Be Alone With You
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.