Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sufjan Stevens in Cleveland

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.

3 comments:

zalm said...

And I thought life was good because Sigur Rós and Iron & Wine released albums on the same day. I can't imagine topping yesterday off with live Sufjan. What a treat.

Thanks for the review, Andy. Everything I've read recently suggests that they're playing much more tightly than when I saw them back in June.

I saw a setlist from the recent Detroit show, and he didn't play "Gacy" there either. I'm surprised. Of all the songs from Illinois, "Gacy" seems like such an obvious signature tune. Indeed, at the San Francisco shows, the new epilogue of ascending minor scales provided some of the most poignant moments of either night. I wonder why he's chosen to bench it.

kate said...

It may be a case of having so much material to work with that Sufjan only "benches" it here and there. I saw him perform in Grand Rapids the night before Andy's Cleveland show, and Gacy was featured front and center. I was interested to see how it would work with the seemingly incongruous cheerleader costumes, but Stevens is graceful enough that he pulled it off effortlessly. In a live context the song bled into a lovely instrumental section, and finally, awestruck and respectful silence as the audience absorbed the full impact. After that, people clapped, rather than cheered wildly (which is what happened throughout the rest of the show). Very interesting.

zalm, I also noticed a tighter, more cohesive stage presence and musicianship. I think it's a matter of not only practice but confidence. Sufjan is worlds more at ease on stage now than when I first saw him perform two or so years ago. In a way, this is a loss--I always liked his awkward, shuffling stage presence, and now he strides around in parody of alpha male behavior. But it's produced some really solid musicianship, as well, so I can't feel too badly about it. :)

John McCollum said...

Andy,

Just wait till you see MY costume I'm preparing for my return to the worship team in a few months.

Just you wait. You haven't seen beatific yet.

John