Roar Music Columnist
At the outset of the first night of his Wiltern engagement, Sufjan Stevens explained that his dramatic new material and stage show reflected “love and loss at the end of the world”. He wasn’t kidding.
On Saturday night, October 23, the brilliant Sufjan Stevens treated his increasingly large Los Angeles audience to a beautiful performance of epic proportions, easily one of the most artistic and fulfilling concerts this reviewer has ever had the privilege of seeing. Seamlessly integrating the precious and intelligent indie-folk for which he is famous into his new, electro-orchestral bombastic material, Stevens delivered the rare epically large-scale show that felt remarkably person. Accompanied by a black-clad 11 piece band that included guitar, banjo, synth, a trombone section, two drummers, piano, bass, auto-harp, acoustic percussion, drum programming as well as two backup dancers/singers who looked très mod in spiffy space-age style silver lamé, Sufjan served as ringleader for this all encompassing visual and auditory circus. Seemingly more an event or a piece of performance art than a concert, the band played their hearts out from between two sheer screens that appeared like mosquito netting, creating a hazy, surrealist visual effect. This was particularly effective on the magical new song “Vesuvius”, during which a volcano was projected onto the back screen and the lava and debris were projected onto the front screen as Sufjan and company tooted flogeolets, shook sleigh bells, bleeped around on samplers, and wailed away about the eruption of eponymous Italian volcano. Pretty far out stuff.
Stevens, dressed in fatigue pants and a t-shirt, was greeted with a thunderous applause. Beginning simply and quietly with his classic “Seven Swans”, accompanied only by banjo, Stevens hinted at the insanity that was to come when this biblically oriented folk song morphed into a hard-rocking percussion orgasm exploding at the seams with only the two drummers and the cosmic projections to hold it down. Continuing with the dance friendly “Too Much”, Stevens began to hedonistically exploit the possibilities of video with a backdrop that looked strikingly like an American Apparel advert, a perfect compliment to the herky-jerky rhythm of the song. Incredibly tight for such a large band, Sufjan’s group rocked out with reckless abandon, conjured up the plastic soul of Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’, and, yes, sensitively provided the acoustic vignettes on which Sufjan has built his reputation.
Many of the highlights of the show came from Steven’s recent “Age of Adz” album and “All Delighted People” EP. The more organic live presentation benefited the material, linking the largely electronic songs to the more orchestral parts of Stevens’ earlier work. Almost operatic in scope, the jagged and massive “Age of Adz” and the angular “Get Real Get Right”, based on the life and beliefs of Louisiana schizophrenic sign painter/folk artist/prophet, were accompanied by animated images of space aliens and celestial beings, taken from the Robertson’s work were among the highlights. Yet between the more intense and grandiose “Adz” songs, Sufjan displayed remarkable sensitivity with acoustic palate cleansers that provided relief from the theatricality, among them the appropriately haunting “Enchanting Ghost” and the beautiful “Heirloom”.
All bets were off, however, for “Impossible Soul”, a 25-minute masterpiece of genre-melding gold. Sufjan went from folk to funk to auto-tune to ’80’s aerobics video style robotic dancing in neon clothing to call and response à la cheerleading squad, all in the course of two costume changes. Suffice to say, you had to be there. Serious stuff. Ending the main set with a magical trombone heavy rendition of his crowd-pleasing hit “Chicago” that swept the audience off of their feet, Stevens was given an insane standing ovation by the adoring crowd that rivals any that I have ever seen.
The encore was comprised of remarkable stripped down acoustic renditions of classic tracks from the “Illinoise” and “Seven Swans” records, sans the theatricality of the main set. “Casimir Pulaski Day” stood out as one of the more chilling and emotional moments of live music that I have ever seen, and even the mid song flub added to the honesty of the performance and the atmosphere of comradery in the room. By the time Sufjan closed the show alone with his acoustic guitar with the creepy yet irresistibly gorgeous “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”, the entire crowd was swept up in Sufjan Steven’s artful vision of a meshing of theatre, art, music and magic. A magical evening with a magical performer that no one in the audience will ever forget.
Sufjan Stevens performs Chicago