"I'm high," someone near me whispered with a wink just before the lights went down and Sufjan Stevens's band of black v-neck-T-shirted accompanists started tuning their instruments together in a cacophony of sound. About three songs into the set, when we started tumbling down a yellow-brick spiral staircase projected on a massive screen behind the band, I wished that I were high, too.
The cult of Sufjan Stevens includes DM Stith, a member of Stevens's Asthmatic Kitty label, and the opening act, which set the mood with a short, intense set. Lilting acoustic harmonies provided a backdrop for Stith's voice, floating softly over his lyrics like a feather caught in the wind. It was very much in the same musical vein as the main event, and so, for the most part, crowd-pleasing. Stith didn't just open, though: He stayed on as a very engaged member of Stevens's band, dancing uninhibitedly as he played the piano for the headlining set.
That set started not even half an hour later, when white lights went up on Sufjan Stevens, who stood front and center donning silver pants and feathered angel wings, with his band fading into the shadows and the crowd falling utterly silent as he plucked the banjo intently. "We didn't sleep too late," he sang softly, the first lyrics of "Seven Swans." Few artists command attention like this one, his compelling voice, wandering storylines and pregnant timing building anticipation and rendering silence for fear you'll miss something. In those moments, it's as if no one but Stevens exists.
The band joined in fiercely for the bridge before fading into the background again, then returned for the climax, stage lights illuminating a group of musicians wearing props -- one in a funny hat, another in a pair of giant sunglasses, a couple of dancers in dresses that could have been inspired by renderings of Judy Jetson.
"I'm Sufjan Stevens, and I'll be your entertainment for the evening," he said as applause and cheers punctuated the song. The crowd laughed easily, and after that warmup, Stevens ditched the angel wings and moved on to "Too Much," a synthy glam-pop number that aroused a sudden desire to cannonball into a pool -- or at least get up and dance instead of sitting in a seat at the Paramount.
Stevens built his following on spellbinding acoustic harmonies, albums that told stories replete with spiritual themes, music that made you work a little, listening over and over until you got it. On stage last night, he told us he'd wanted to create something that came from the affectation of sound rather than his characteristic narrative. To write from raw emotion. To have an adolescence.
And so he released The Age of Adz in the middle of October, a frenetic collection that substitutes the synthesizer for the symphony of acoustic instruments employed in the albums that went before it. Stevens brought The Age of Adz to life on stage last night, a similarly adolescent experiment with costume changes, choreographed dance routines, disharmonic jams and abstract art. It was a struggle to come of age that we watched, bound to our seats in a gilded concert hall, as the band bounced around on stage.
Despite his intent, Stevens can't really ditch the narrative that makes him an interesting showman, and instead of weaving it in songs last night, he spoke it, telling us strange backstories and creating dialogue when there was no backstory to tell.
That dialogue started a little heavy for a guy who was projecting a laser light show and wearing silver streamers stuffed in his pockets. Ruminations on love and heartache and the end of the world that prefaced the glittery, ambient "Age of Adz" seemed especially ridiculous, given the ribbon dancers on stage.
Luckily, a stop-taking-yourself-so-seriously interlude came quickly. "This is a slow jam," he said, easing into the entrancing, ethereal "I walked," in which the robotic choreographed dance routine and light-up visor Stevens placed jauntily on his head went a long way to everyone's heart.
He primed his fans for the heavy, nearly archaic "Vesuvius" with a monologue on individuals who choose to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel or jump into the heart of a volcano. He preceded a trippy "Now That I'm Older" by telling us that twenty minutes after we're born, we've got E. coli in our noses. And he used the story of Royal Robertson, a schizophrenic artist, to introduce "Get Real Get Right," which, in turn, played like a schizophrenic circus.
The apex of the show was a tricked-out rendition of "Impossible Soul," an ebbing and flowing number that stretched for several minutes and inspired more costume changes. It had a good hook that, at long last, brought the immobile crowd to its feet, cheering as Stevens momentarily donned a gorilla mask.
"Thank you for letting us work out our personal problems on stage," he said when the pop riffs came skittering to a close, half the crowd cheering emphatically, the other half looking slightly betrayed. He finished up with a crowd-pleaser, "Chicago," indulging his fans with the orchestral anthem, enticing a newly rapt audience to hang on his every word and note once more.
It was a good one to go out on, and we brought him back, stomping our feet. He returned to the stage without his band, without his props, without his costume -- well, save for the silver pants. And under the bright-white stage lights, he played a silent crowd three more acoustic songs, three reminders of why we grew to love him in the first place, and then he was gone.
Presumably, as Stevens continues to evolve, he'll show maturity by integrating his roots back into his shows, bringing the best of his adolescence through to the next phase. Some of his new material was just as electrifying and innovative as his old, glimmers of the same musical genius that sets the man apart.
But there were also moments that felt as if the musician was trying on a personality, drawing inspiration not from his own emotion, but instead borrowing heavily from sounds innovated by the electronic-heavy indie-pop and rock artists that comprise his peers. And that made the pop-art projections, the strange tales of volcanoes and schizophrenia, the feverish dancing and the eclectic costume changes feel a little contrived, and rendered stretches of his set merely boring.
The Paramount show was a unique opportunity to see Stevens in a very specific phase of his career, to see a truly brilliant artist in growth, complete with all of the joy and all of the pain. He threw a lot of shit at the wall last night. Some of it was brilliant. But it wouldn't be surprising if most of it doesn't stick.
Click through for Critic's Notebook and Setlist.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Card-carrying, multiple-album-owning fan. Especially in the fall. It's probably Seasonally Affective Disorder. By the Way: Asthmatic Kitty, Stevens's record label, was named for a fat orange and white cat named Sara. Random Detail: Besides the silver pants and rotating wearable props, Stevens's stagewear included a Tony the Tiger T-shirt with Japanese lettering and bands of Scotch tape wound around his arms.
"Enchanting Ghost" posted by our friends at Something Like Sound
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Sufjan Stevens 11.02.10 | Paramount Theatre Denver, CO.
Seven Swans Too Much Age of Adz Heirloom I Walked Futile Devices Vesuvius Now That I'm Older Get Real Get Right Enchanting Ghost Impossible Soul Chicago
Illinois To Be Alone With You John Wayne Gacy, Jr.