Live Review: Sufjan Stevens @ Orpheum Theater
Fans walking into the Orpheum Theater Saturday night who haven’t kept up with Sufjan Stevens recorded output in the last 6 months (the EP All Delighted People and the LP Age of Adz) were in for quite a surprise. Sufjan performed one of the most exhilterating, endlessly artistic and challenging major venue shows I have seen in a very long time. Walking out, I told my friend that I bet there were some yuppie, middle age/class people walking out of the show upset that the artist they “liked” wasn’t doing what he had done when they became enamored with him (i.e mellow, lush pop music). Right on cue this morning, our resident tone deaf music critic from the state’s biggest paper summed up the looks I saw leaving last night from “music fans” who weren’t able or willing to follow Stevens on his latest journey. This is unfortunate for them, as Stevens is still quite young and I imagine we will see many more twists in his career and I, for one, am excited to see where this crazy talented artist takes us.
From the moment the band entered the stage, the crowd was given a full on spectacle. For about a third of the songs, the group was behind a screen the made the projections, which were also behind the band, seem 3D. The stunning artwork playing during the show, like his latest album, was inspired by outside artist Royal Robertson (whom Stevens talked about at length, showing his natural storytelling ability) and only made the whole show that much more engaging. You knew the night was going to be highly electronic when Stevens started the set with his gentle “Seven Swans,” only to have his 10 piece backing band join in during thunderous interludes. From there on out, a majority of the main set comprised of Age of Adz tunes, with the title track, “Too Much,” “I Walked” and “Get Real, Get Right” serving as reminders that even with 8 minute electronic songs, Sufjan is one of our generation’s preeminent songwriters. After almost every song either I turned to my friend or him to me and something along the lines of “that was crazy” was passed between us. Stevens ended the set with his 25 minute “mini suite” “Impossible Love,” which found the band, including Stevens, adding goofy costumes, dancing like drunk wedding guests and playing a song that was longer than some bands sets that I have seen recently. After all of the artistic gymnastics and sonic experimentation, Stevens ended the set with four songs from his previous albums that felt like the “classics” or “hits” that Neil Young or some classic artist dusts off at the end of a set, which is funny becase the albums are from this last decade. Starting off with set closer and crowd sing along favorite “Chicago,” Stevens came back for the encore and played a hushed version of “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.” Stevens then played soulful, angelic versions of “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “That Dress Looks Nice on You,” both of which started off shaky (Stevens was telling chords before the last song and said it was a “Sufjan Stevens Songwriting Session”) but were resounding in their beauty and simplicity, which was especially powerful after the excess presented during the main set.
While there were surely many people taken aback by the show, I think they are “fans” that are going to be disappointed often if they continue to follow Steven’s career. I understand and appreciate how great Steven’s banjo driven, orchestrated pop music was, but what makes him so great is that his musical genius isn’t confined to that setting. Hearing him play ten minute electro funk jams with trippy 3D snakes and houses floating behind and around him isn’t the Sufjan Stevens I had known and loved these past few years, but at the same time it is. His sound has always been unique and hard to nail down, and I imagine it will be that way for his whole career. After Saturdays amazing show, I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.