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Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens at Bowery Ballroom, New York, New York, October 5th, 2009

Oct 21, 2009 Photography by Laura Leebove Web Exclusive
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Instead of waiting in the wings for the lights to go down on the stage of New York’s Bowery Ballroom, Sufjan Stevens, after sound-checking his own equipment, nonchalantly picked up his banjo and began to strum the first chords of “The Mistress Witch From McClure.” Dressed in a jersey T-shirt and jeans with a camouflage baseball cap tucked in his back pocket, this shy boy from Michigan is still modest, despite his four consecutive New York shows that sold out instantly.

While Stevens and his band of about 10 musicians (give or take, depending on the song) played the obvious tracks such as “Casimir Pulaski Day” off 2005’s Illinois, the night really served as a space to test out new material, which made up almost a third of the 13-song set. The new tracks are mostly a bit dark, intense, and futuristic, with abstract guitar solos, spacey electronic blips, echoed vocals, and deep trombone lines. They’re also rather lengthy: Before “All Delighted People,” Stevens suggested, “If you feel tired, go to the bar and get a drink.” The song clocked in at just over 11 minutes, but it only seemed that long because I was watching the time on the girl next to me’s Flip cam.

Stevens’ enchanting live performance is all about build-up, as many of his songs started with him and his banjo or guitar and slowly added in shakers, horns, and layered vocals, until all of a sudden it was hard to keep track of who was doing what on stage. Providing the backup voices were Nedelle Torrisi of fellow Asthmatic Kitty artist Cryptacize, who opened the show, and comedian/musician Rosie Thomas, who collaborated with Stevens on her album These Friends Of Mine. Thomas also did a pre-encore skit as her comedian alter ego Shiela Saputo, and wearing a neck brace and dorky glasses, she spouted off one-liners in an ode to Stevens, including, “You had me at ‘Who are you and why are you still here?’” and “You say, ‘Jump,’ I say, ‘Off of what?’” while Stevens keeled over laughing in the wings.

Highlights of the old tunes included those with lots of punctuation: “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” and the shout-out to his (and this writer’s) birth city in “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!),” both sprawling tracks with quick and complex vocal bits. Stevens admitted that the band was reading the lyrics to “Illinoise” since they hadn’t performed it live in a while, but cut them some slack—it can’t be easy to shout rhyming, tongue-twisting lines like “Ancient hieroglyphic or the South Pacific/Typically terrific, busy and prolific/Classical devotion, architect promotion/Lacking in emotion. Think about it now.”

After the new song “Age of Adz,” or “Victoria,” as it’s also been dubbed for now, Stevens voiced what everyone seemed to feel after a piece that, at one point, featured an assaulting combo of nearly every instrument onstage: “We’re exhausting ourselves up here.” After a couple more songs, Thomas’ skit, and the encore of an acoustic version of “Chicago,” Stevens and co. closed with the last new piece of the night, “There’s Too Much Love.” He prefaced it with, “It’s a little weird. We appreciate your open hearts and open ears.” Open hearts and open ears, indeed; what’s next for Stevens should be interesting.

Setlist:

1. The Mistress Witch From McClure

2. Impossible Soul

3. All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands

4. Come On! Feel the Illinoise!

5. Casimir Pulaski Day

6. All Delighted People

7. Size Too Small

8. The Dress Looks Nice On You

9. Age of Adz (Victoria?)

10. Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)

11. Jacksonville

Encore

1. Chicago

2. There’s Too Much Love

(www.sufjan.com)




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Laura
October 21st 2009
10:39pm

Wow! Sounds like a fun show. Now if only we could get him to come out west…

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