The three of us – Nick, Jeff, and I – hit the road by 5:30, right on schedule. It was Boys Night Out, and the boys, two slouching into middle age, one right on the verge of AARP eligibility, were embarking on a five-hour round trip to a late night rock show. Why grow up now?
When I saw Sufjan Stevens back in April at Calvin College he wore a swan costume and played before a hushed, attentive audience. No one snickered, although there were times when I had to stifle the urge, and I looked around incredulously, thinking surely that some smartass undergraduate with less decorum than my reserved, AARP-ready self was going to beat me to it. But no one did, and after five minutes I was won over. The swan costume looked more like angel’s wings, the perfect visual prop for music so fragile and ethereally beautiful that it had to be produced by a graduate of Seraph State. We got mostly songs from Michigan and (of course) Seven Swans that night, with a teaser from the upcoming Illinois album. It was gorgeous – audaciously gorgeous – music, and I vowed to follow Sufjan any time he came within about a 150-mile radius of home.
He barely made the cutoff point. Last night in Cleveland, 146 miles from home, we got raucous kitsch instead of ethereal fragility, and the crowd, primed for a pep rally, responded with rowdy enthusiasm. You Sufjan fans probably know the drill by now – the cheerleader costumes, the pom poms, the numerous Illinois-themed cheers/chants that serve as the between-song banter. It was fun the first couple times, mildly annoying after the eighth. But it was no big deal. The songs – overwhelmingly from Illinois this time, naturally – were performed flawlessly. I was particularly impressed with “The Predatory Wasp …,” wondering how Sufjan could possibly pull off that complex orchestral arrangement in concert. It helped to have eight people on stage – horns, guitars, keyboards, and those fine ‘60s girl group backup vocalists (The Swanettes?) singing marvelous counterpoint. We heard most of the Illinois album, minus the U.F.O and John Wayne Gacy Jr. songs. We heard “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” from Seven Swans, “For the Widows in Paradise …” from Michigan. Most curiously and chillingly, we heard the crowd sing along with “Casimir Pulaski Day,” the first feel-good crowd pleaser about bone cancer I’ve ever heard. We witnessed a very fine concert – very different from but just as compelling as the one I witnessed in April.
Opener Laura Veirs left me cold. Sorry. There was some occasionally interesting feedback squall, but otherwise her songs weren’t memorable either musically or lyrically. Midway through her set my friend Jeff and I wandered over to the record store next to the concert venue, chatted with the owner for a bit, and bought a couple of new CDs. All in time to make it back easily before Sufjan’s set.
And after Sufjan we drove back home, had more great conversation, and I was snug and in bed by 3:15. And then Kate wanted to talk about her day.
I’m paying for it today, of course, living with the cumulative effects of two and a half hours of sleep and a 50-year-old body, precariously functioning thanks to copious amounts of coffee, ready for another fine day in corporate America. It is the abuse we endure for music and friendship and marriage. I love it, am incredibly thankful for the whole messy, exhilarating, joyous thing. I’d gladly do it again – in a month or two.