Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sufjan Stevens Concert Review

Sufjan Stevens at Kingsbury Hall, November 1st, 2010

Confession: I have not attended a live show in over a year. This due in part to my disillusionment with live shows after attending hundreds over the past few years and due partly to my now 1.5 year old son. It also doesn’t help that one of the primary venues in Salt Lake City for Forest-Gospel-friendly shows, doesn’t get things rolling until well after 10PM. What can I say? I’m getting older. And I’ve pretty much seen most everyone I’ve wanted to live anyway. (At least that's what I tell myself.)

(My old bones seem to have hindered my blogging lately as well. Over two weeks without a new post?!?)

The Age of Adz has changed all of that. First off, the record is insane - in the best way possible, of course. But yeah, insanity reigneth on The Age of Adz. Simply game-changing. I even wrote a lengthy rant-heavy, apologist review for Sufjan and the album (which, wisely, I restrained myself from posting). So, when I heard Sufjan was touring, I scheduled my parents on baby-sitting duty and snatched up some tickets for me and Sassigrass.

One of the appealing aspects of Sufjan’s current tour is the venues he reportedly hand-selected. Kingsbury Hall is an aged, established auditorium on the campus of the University of Utah, more commonly used for dance and plays, and boasting plush seating with a full balcony. Not your standard indie-rock venue and certainly a factor in my attendance.

Sitting down with Sassigrass, we observed as swaths of excited, mostly college-aged kids franticly socialized in the aisles. It was quite a spectacle for those of us sitting patiently, comfortably – like a social feeding pool. There was a sheer, black screen between the crowd and the stage, the silhouette of cymbals and mic stands visible through the barrier. And then, promptly at eight o’clock, out in front of the screen, walks an indistinctive fellow with an acoustic guitar. Sassigrass and I had no idea that there was going to be an opener, but couldn't keep from bursting out in excitement when the performer announced himself as DM Stith. (Anyone following Forest Gospel this past year will be familiar with our love of Heavy Ghosts, Stith’s debut from 2009.)

Stith played a brief, skeletal, four song set – three from Heavy Ghosts and one new one (new to me, at least). The spectral beauty developed wonderfully with Stith, illuminated by a dull square of golden light, managing his way through the songs with his acoustic guitar, pastoral voice and a looping pedal. Though, “Thanksgiving Moon” had some additional support from the brass section of Sufjan’s band, glowing through the sheer-black backdrop to complete Stith’s measured, minimalist composition. Quite a wonderful treat.

And then, after a bit more time (for the socialites) – Sufjan.

The band took the stage in near complete darkness as spritely projections floated on the foreground. Expectedly, the crowd erupted. The opener: “Seven Swans.” Sufjan, banjo in hand, plucking and crooning amidst the tension of his ten-piece band until, about halfway through, the full force of group let loose in piercing explosion. A glorious hint at things to come. The song continued to contort variously until, with its completion, the screen in the foreground ascended, and the band stood, diversely costumed in all their post-Halloween grandeur.

With a small bit of banter, Sufjan and the band leveraged their numbers to reproduce the searing maximalism of The Age of Adz in renditions of “Too Much” and the post-apocalyptic balladry of “Age of Adz.” The bass rumbled through the seats with the force of an atom bomb, the electronics squabbled about ridiculously in the open air above the audience, the back-up singers performed their pre-planned dance moves (severely, hilariously out-of-sync), the dual drumming careened about wildly, bizarre illustrations and lighting geometries washed over the white backdrop, and Sufjan front and center with angel wings strapped to his back (of course) – it was an enormous spectacle and thrilling capture of the infinity feel permeating The Age of Adz.

Following that go-for-broke exhibition, Sufjan brought things down with an acoustic serving from the All Delighted People “EP.” “Heirloom” felt like a reminder to the portion of the audience not acclimated to the mind-scorching powers of The Age of Adz that, yes, this is the same Sufjan Stevens they adored. This was also a blue print of the remainder of the concert: soaring, transcendent selections from The Age of Adz followed by stripped, beautiful songs from All Delighted People. The meat of the concert was culled almost solely from Sufjan’s two most recent records.

The show wasn’t without its hiccups though. A couple lyrical slips, some questionable transitions (at least in my opinion, I was hoping for lengthier stretchs from Adz), Sufjan’s self-conscious, between song anecdotes. But the hiccups were a part of the beauty of it. Even in the midst of its full-force astral robotics, The Age of Adz and Sufjan’s live set are ultimately humanizing in their effect, bringing us closer to the artist who previously felt too highly deified. And Kingsbury Hall played an interesting part in the contradictions that are present in The Age of Adz. As much as I loved sitting back and comfortably watching the set, there was an intangible tension growing from the moment that the band took the stage and, in the middle of Sufjan’s five-part, twenty-five minute epic, “Impossible Soul,” that tension burst when, finally – finally – the crowd broke out of its auditorium-daze and rose to join Sufjan in dance as he flamboyantly and awkwardly grooved with his bandmates on stage. It was a beautiful, necessary moment and revelator that despite the queer, avant-garde elements that factor into the arithmetic Adz, the music is ultimately a physical, interactive experience – and a populous one – even in the midst of its isolating madness. It is, perhaps more so than anything else Sufjan has created, a communal record.

Additional highlights included a lengthy dissertation by Sufjan on the biography of Royal Robertson before playing “Get Real Get Right,” the flaming multimedia effects in combination with a towering "Vesuvius," the blissfully altered (in its finale) rendition of “I walked” and the soul destroying take on “The Owl and the Tanager” (a reminder that Sufjan isWstill capable of devastating songs at the level of “Casimir Pulaski Day” or “The Mistress Witch from McClure (or The Mind That Knows Itself)”).

Oh, and, for those who are interested, no, he’s not above crowd-pleasing. In what almost felt like an appeal to the crowd to love him despite a full set of completely new songs, the band closed with a muscular version of “Chicago” before a three-song encore sourced entirely by the state of Illinois.


Set List:
Seven Swans
Too Much
Age of Adz
I Walked
Enchanting Ghost
The Owl and the Tanager
(Biography of Royal Robertson)
Get Real Get Right
Futile Devices
Impossible Soul

Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.


Anonymous said...

Really nice concert report. I especially liked how you said that the hiccups seemed to add; i couldn't agree more. Also a good point about Sufjan not being above crowd pleasing. I also did a concert report, which is a little more condensed than yours. Feel free to check it out and leave a comment if you would like!


jomama said...

thanks for your review. i was at the concert last night too and i loved it so much. i was wondering where you got that image of the poster? do you know if they're selling those anywhere?

Jenny said...

Fantastic review of the concert! I was there too, and wrote about my experience too. I found your blog, ironically, from a link from the poster artist's facebook page. Ha! I love your description of the opening number. I tried to put it into words, but it was difficult to describe how wonderful it was. I'm glad you got the set list, too... I'd been looking for that!
Thanks! :)

Forest Gospel said...

thanks for the kind comments. I got the poster image from gigposters.com. You can buy the poster here: http://www.etsy.com/shop/potterpress