Sufjan Stevens. Red Rocks. 07.18.16
As his voice rose to the heavens above Red Rocks, “because he is the Lord, cause he is the Lord,” massive feathered wings grew from the back of Sufjan Stevens. Reaching for the full moon above, they spread open to receive the night, while Stevens’ angelic voice mesmerized the congregation. And then the dancers grew gossamer wings of their own; threatening to take flight above the monoliths, they instead lent their voices to the composition as the band came alive behind them, “ahh ahhhhhh, seven swans, seven swans, seven swans…”
Having employed almost every instrument known to man to explore the vast history of the state of Illinois, and having followed a muse into the depths of nu rave with a Day-Glo sideshow of interpretive dance, and then having pushed Christmas music past of the point of good taste, Stevens’ decision to return to his indie folk roots was highly applauded by critics and fans alike when he released Carrie & Lowell last year. His most personal (and perhaps best) album to date, reintroduced the man without a mask. Every track was barefaced and autobiographical and brutally brutally honest.
The choice to open with “Seven Swans” provided a glimmer of hope that the man behind the myth would reveal himself at Red Rocks as well. After all, the scene had been set with a vibrant double rainbow during the soothing, richly textured opening set by Los Angeles R&B group, Rhye. But all hope was splintered as Stevens repeatedly hammered his banjo into the stage at the conclusion of the track. Looking away from the carnage, I noticed harbingers of the pageantry to come: horns, a silver podium, yellow parachute pants, glow-in-the-dark makeup, an excessive amount of balloons…
Just because Sufjan Stevens made a folk album, doesn’t mean Sufjan Stevens is a folk singer. Like Beck before him, the man is an artist of many talents. And when a multifaceted artist puts on a show, it is going to be a multifaceted show. Love it or leave it, the days of seeing Stevens perform a simple set are long gone.
“Welcome to the spaceship of Red Rocks, my name is Sufjan Stevens and I love you.”
Perhaps angry at himself for having faith, the decision to paint the stage with fluorescents instead of emotions had been made. “Too Much” transported the amphitheater back to The Age of Adz with a triple horn attack, choreographed dancing, and a lot of hand and arm gestures. Everything happening on the stage was magnified and mimicked by the glossy images on LED tiles above.
“Movement is life and life is love.”
There was a sense of confusion among those in the front rows. The music was a mandate to move your ass, yet the majority of people were sitting down; eyes wide in perplexed wonder. I couldn’t help but be sympathetic to those poor souls who had never witnessed (even on YouTube) a Sufjan Stevens performance before. A millennium could be spent studying the encyclopedic discography of Mr. Stevens without ever being fully prepared for his stage show. Even “All of Me Wants All of You”, the whispering love letter from Carrie & Lowell, came across as something completely different when combined with a ridiculous hat, a pair of wrist warmers, and an interpretive dance routine.
“The next song is a history lesson about The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It’s a bit of a word salad”
Moving over to the keyboard, the 41-year-old multi-instrumentalist still looked like a kid who showed up for the Global Dance Festival on the wrong night. The female dancers worked pom poms as they assumed the role of cheerleaders for the city of Chicago. Home movies from Stevens’ formative years in that city provided the perfect backdrop for the epic song, while the sounds of trumpets and trombones rang true through the night air…all the way to the back rows.
“I flew to Denver and drove to Morrison and I looked up at the red rocks…and I saw a children’s choir…and the face of God above the rocks said this…and I transcribed it and I’m going to play it now.”
Finally coming to an understanding with their situation, more and more people found their footing; doing their best to keep up with the multiple personalities manifesting themselves through the man-child center stage. Awkward dancing (ranging from head nodding and toe tapping, to hippie shakes, to full-on EDM-style shuffling) spread through the venue like an airborne contagion gone wild. The audience participation continued through “I Walked” and “Vesuvius”; two more tracks from a set surprisingly heavy on The Age of Adz material.
The Carrie & Lowell suite came mid-set. “Blue Bucket of Gold” (a gutting story of abandonment) was brought to life with images of fleeting happiness from Stevens’ troubled childhood. The painful stab of “Fourth of July” (where Stevens professes love to his mother on her dying bed) was eased a bit when three disco balls filled the night with tiny lights; like comforting spirits assuring us death isn’t the end. “Should Have Known Better” deconstructed the grieving process, under the calming image of waves lapping on a serene, deserted beach. The mini-set came to its conclusion with the title track — the one concerning the strained relationship between his late mother and stepfather (current Asthmatic Kitty label head, Lowell Brams).
It was at that point when it became obvious why Stevens has carried so much of The Age of Adz music and stage presentation over to his current tour. Sure, that album was inspired by a Louisiana sign-artist, Royal Robertson, who had severe mental problems, and there were apocalyptic and suicidal themes throughout, but those songs were all fun and games compared to the material on Carrie & Lowell. As incredible as the songs on his latest album are, four of them in a row was enough to bruise the soul of anyone within a certain radius, so imagine what they must have done to the person performing them…especially considering he actually lived (and survived) the narrative contained within.
Stevens was on that stage, with his glowing green shoelaces, disco-ball superhero contraptions, and balloon suits for a reason. All of those items (distractions?), as well as the act of launching himself into the audience while a troupe of inflatable tube men convulsed like maniacs in front of random animation, coalesced into art as catharsis.
Last time I saw Sufjan Stevens in concert, he spoke about “wide open spaces like Crater Lake, The Plains, The Great Lakes, and Niagara Falls…places of such magnitude, you just want to throw yourself in,” before admitting “we all have self-preservation, but there is something beautiful about giving in to the magnitude.”
Thoughts like those have led to the loss of Elliot Smith, Mark Linkous, and Kurt Cobain.
If Sufjan Steven were to tour small venues, sitting on a stool with a guitar every night (maybe switching over to the piano for a few songs), I guarantee the weight of his own words would crush him. Instead, he chooses to lead a merry band of balloon-clad misfits through an extended jam like “Impossible Soul”. And we are all better off because of it.
The main set ended with a florescent, tribal folk version of “Chicago” that would have made Wayne Coyne and Miley Cyrus proud. As thousands of voices joined in for “all things go, all things go,” I found myself a bit distressed. The reason I write about shows is because I love to share the experiences I find so exhilarating, but sometimes I just know I’ll never be able to convey what it was like to be at a specific show, at least not with simple paragraphs on a page. A wordsmith like Sufjan Stevens could probably do it, but not I. That was my feeling toward the end of the main set. It was just one of those performances that had to be heard, and seen, and felt…personally. So when Stevens bade us farewell with “Thank you, God bless you, goodnight,” about 80 minutes after having taken the stage, I was emotionally drained.
“This one is for the widows in paradise.”
As it turned out, Stevens still had some ‘feels’ left in him, so a fictional story about a real town kicked off the (mostly) acoustic encore. With nothing more than a banjo, and his band hiding in the shadows, “For The Widows in Paradise, For The Fatherless in Ypsilanti” was performed from the comfort of a stool — finally providing the scene many were expecting the entire show. The banjo was swapped for a guitar for “To Be Alone with You”. And then he dedicated “The Dress Looks Nice on You” to his phenomenal dancers, one of whom was suffering through a hip injury and relying on a decorated pair of crutches to get through the routines. Stray balloons and strings of Christmas foil littered the stage as Stevens sang about life radiating from a pretty girl.
“We have one last song and unfortunately it is about death. It wouldn’t be a Sufjan Stevens show without death, but I’m still alive.”
“Casimir Pulaski Day” closed the night. And although the song is about the loss of a friend, it is not autobiographical, so there was a hint of levity between the plucked strings and lively horns. Some of the weight of the evening had been lifted by the time the last notes faded out of existence. Having witnessed the performance from the 4th row, we were in the Upper North Lot before anyone else, so I wasn’t able to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. I imagine there were mixed reactions through.
Sufjan Stevens 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 the end result is always ‘art’ that pushes through boundaries of folk and pop music, all the way to edges of avant-garde, without becoming so ‘artsy’ it discourages the casual listener/observer from enjoying every minute of it. That being said, I love The Age of Adz album and I really enjoyed his performance on that tour, so I was prepared for what we witnessed at Red Rocks. In fact, it’ll go down as one of the best shows I’ve ever seen there. My personal opinion aside, I do empathize with those who appreciate his music, but might not have appreciated the larger-than-life, winged reveler he played on stage. I just hope those people were able to close their eyes and hear the music, because it really was magnificent.
All of Me Wants All of You
Come On! Feel the Illinoise!
Blue Bucket of Gold
Fourth of July
Should Have Known Better
Carrie & Lowell
I Want to Be Well
For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
To Be Alone With You
The Dress Looks Nice on You
Casimir Pulaski Day
Major Minor Love
Shed Some Blood