Sufjan Stevens at the Henry Fonda Theatre, Hollywood, CA, November 6 | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, February 22nd, 2020  

A Christmas Unicorn

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens at the Henry Fonda Theatre, Hollywood, CA, December 4th, 2012

Dec 07, 2012 Photography by Laura Studarus Bookmark and Share


“This is like the manifestation of Christmas,” Sufjan Stevens yelped, waving a deflated balloon over his head at the Henry Fonda on Tuesday night.

Uh, really? This might be coming from a place of literary jealousy, but why do musicians get to use all the fondue-worthy, Poetry 101 quips?

Thus ends the cynical portion of our program. ‘Cause seriously, when you’re attending a show lovingly dubbed “Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice,” you know what you’re getting yourself into. For those who weren’t indoctrinated into Stevens’ world—which in the past has included state-themed albums, Fiona Apple-length song titles, and outrageous costumes that would give Edith Head pause—their first clue came upon entrance. Each attendee was handed a makeshift hymnal that read:

Directions for singing:

Sing lustily and with good courage

Beware of singing as though you were half dead

Or half asleep

Be no more afraid of your voice now

Nor more ashamed of being heard

Than when you sang the songs of Satan.

The overstuffed stage only served to enforce the night’s theme: namely, more is more is MORE. Strewn with all manor of holiday decoration (including an angel doll holding a cigarette), the only thing missing was Buddy the Elf. (Which is fine. When it comes to Santa’s helpers, Stevens airs more on the side of Sedaris than Ferrell.) Centered against the back wall of the stage was a “Christmas Wheel,” a magical piece of machinery that the band would spin throughout the evening to determine the sing-along portion of the show. 

Backing Stevens was a five-piece band, which included Rosie Thomas as a crazed snowman, and Nedelle Torrisi (Paradise) as a zombie nun. ‘Cause there ain’t no party like a Sufjan Stevens fancy dress party. (This might be true, as the jovial audience followed suit with almost as outrageous attire—including one girl who dressed as a truly adorable Christmas Unicorn.)

The evening was divided between sing-alongs of classic Christmas tunes as determined by the Wheel of Christmas (including “We Need a Little Christmas” from the musical, Mame, which apparently was a standard in every household but mine), and Stevens’ original compositions. Among those performed were “Sister Winter,” “Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!,” and the impressive ten-minute plus opus “Christmas Unicorn”—which devolved into an over-the-top, Flaming Lips-like celebration, complete with blow up unicorns, confetti cannons, and Stevens in a unicorn-meets-octopus costume.

The band deftly pulled off wild swings in mood, mixing sincere elements such as the Christian standard “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” with two Bach a cappella pieces, with goofy songs about a killer Frosty the Snowman and Santa’s helpers. A recent essay on Stereogum contended that Stevens—by action and word—is preaching against the idea that Christian music should fall lock step into a mindless mold. While only a minute sliver of the music performed explicitly espoused Steven’s worldview, the show seemed to back up the idea. By reappointing the tools of so many disenfranchised hipsters before him, including kitsch (Hey, he’s in a funny costume!), and self-deprecation (“A large portion of this performance is public humiliation.”), Steven has created an environment where sincere belief and sophomoric laughter aren’t mutually exclusive. A Christmas miracle?

While Christmas was the name of the game (and, to a lesser extent, flogging his new compilation Silver & Gold), it must be tiring to stake a large portion of your reputation on a holiday. (We now pause to remember Adam Sandler’s run as “that Hanukkah Guy.”) Which is why Stevens returned to the stage for a Christmas-free encore. “I thought I’d play a couple of real songs,” he said, noting that by now the audience must be tried of the “transcendental yuletide madness.”

Thus, the show came to an end, not under the mistletoe, but rather with Sufjan leading his band through several cuts from previous state-themed albums. It would be a disservice to attempt to sum up Stevens’ sprawling evening of genre, theme, and tone hopping. It was more smorgasbord than concert—each attendee free to pick their meaning from the embarrassment of riches presented. By the end of the night, he made sure all our cups overflowed. 

 

(www.sufjan.com)




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