Sufjan Stevens at the House of Blues, New Orleans, Sept. 19, 2006
I got to check one off the list the other night after seeing Sufjan Stevens perform live. I'm not as convinced as I once was that he has enough longevity in the limelight to see his album-for-each-50-states thing through, but he is still one of the more captivating and, most importantly, weird artists to have real impact. Should he hang on for another 4-5 years, he might go down in the Too Normal To Be For Real Hall of Fame, set in stately Lincoln Nebraska, geographic center of the United States of America. Wax statue by Madame Toussaint to be set next to David Byrne's. Macaroni salad and Pepsi products to me served at the reception by the women's auxiliary.
The New Orleans House of Blues was packed to the gills, but when he played, it was so quiet you could hear the bartender trying to quietly make drinks. They all came out in grey marching band uniforms with giant butterfly wings on their backs and elaborate feathered Mardi Gras masks, solemnly making their ways, all 12 or so people in his band, to their allotted risers. It had the precision of the best fucking show choir concert ever. Throughout the show, one almost got the feeling that Stevens may in fact have never been to a proper rock show, and this is how he thought it should be done - band geeks in butterfly costumes keeping tight to the sheet music before them. And in this case, he is right.
It's easy to make fun of Sufjan because of his Pollyanna public persona, his frequent goofy interview responses, and easier still after seeing him live, standing Eagle Scout erect in his costume (his had bird wings, just letting you know who is First Chair around here) and delivering some of the ore clumsy stage banter, and then aw-shucks apologizing for it. This kind of business usually grates on me. I like my rock stars to be cocksure and unapproachable. What I learned that night is that Sufjan Stevens is not a rock star at all, but a conscientious and dedicated musician that can hypnotize the most jaded of crowds with his art.
A video screen to the back projected super-8 footage of progress-happy Detroit and Chicago architecture, home footage of the band cavorting by a river blowing up a pile of inflatable Supermen and screensaver-grade psychedelia, and unlike most video projections, it actually worked with the music and not against it. Again the precision - it was a high school band director's wet dream. The songs pulled almost exclusively from the Michigan and Illinois albums, the exception being a resplendent stripped down (meaning only 5 people involved) version of "That Dress Looks Nice on You" from Seven Swans in the encore.
But yes, the wasps and bees and traincars and Bible study escapades were brought gloriously to life. I've heard from folks that know that Philip Glass's core group back in its day was the most powerful, intricate group for the money, but put him in some insect costumes and challenge him to pull off his orchestral rigor while simultaneously make music that both sweet college gilrs and the loathsome music geek boys equally adore, Sufjan would mop the floor with him.
The finest moments were some of the finest moments on the records. "Casmir Pulaski Day" - the sweetest most perfect teen sex frustration anthem this side of Big Star's "Thirteen" garnered rousing cheers at the onset when he strapped on his banjo, and reduced the place to tears. 'Chicago" and "Detroit" both exploded in the air before us. I bet when people pen corporate anthems (do people do that any more?) this is what they are hoping for.
The thing I appreciated the most besides the music, was his stiltedness. Instead of a grating ham-fisted fake-tear speech about how Meaningful their day in New Orleans was, he gave a tidy "great to be here in this room with all of you" chestnut. Really, save the fruitcakes and the Hallmark cards, New Orleans needs something other than self-serving wishes of goodwill. Anyways - Sufjan Stevens is a rare bird indeed in that he has thet classical performer sense of rigor and determination with no outward characteristics of diva-hood whatsoever. An artist that would be creating his curious art just the same if its only outing was to be at an 8pm School of Music recital on a Tuesday. I wish he had heeded the calls for "John Wayne Gacy" but the boy had a program to stick to a nd somewhere in Michigan, a concert band director got a warm feeling that someone finally gets it.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com