October 22, 2009
Sufjan Stevens could have easily sold out the any number of theatres, ballrooms, or pavillions in Chicago but he chose to take his sole Illinois stop on this tour at a tiny rural bar called The Highdive in Champaign, IL. The show sold out instantly and 300 very lucky fans got to see what he was calling the “Sufjan Stevens Workshop Tour”, which as you can imagine, included a number of brand new works-in-progress. I’ve been a Sufjan fanatic ever since seeing him four years ago during his Illinois tour and since he hasn’t released a proper full-length album and has only toured sparingly since, the prospect of seeing him again and hearing new songs was very exciting.
Sufjan was joined by a modest-by-his-standards six-piece backing band with each member playing a variety of instruments and standing behind pages of sheet music that they flipped through as if they were the London Symphony Orchestra. Not your typical bar show, to say the least, but we’re talking about an artist who’s recent projects include 5-disc box set of Christmas music and a multimedia symphony about the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The first track played was a “Impossible Soul”, which Sufjan explained was a response to a reporter who asked him why he never makes any love songs. The tune showed a continuation of the direction Sufjan began taking with “You Are The Blood” with electronic dubs and twisting, complex orchestral movements. Anyone who though Sufjan was getting too complacent with his pretty, baroque neo-folk will undoubtedly be impressed by these ambitious, sprawling compositions.
Perhaps to contrast the wildly different styles, the older songs that Sufjan played were primarily the quiet, acoustic-based folk that he does so well (which he humorously referred to as “strummy-strum” songs). He played three songs from his majestic gospel-folk opus, Seven Swans, “Transfiguration”, “To Be Alone With You” and “Dress Looks Nice On You”. All were performed beautifully, and this being the first time that I had ever heard any these songs being played live, made it even more special. Sufjan played one track from Greetings from Michigan, “The Upper Peninsula”, which was a complete surprise at the time, but has since become a standard for this tour. The song’s haunting melody and chaotic electric guitar came off wonderful live, and served to highlight a track that I’ve long overlooked.
My favorite of all the new songs played was “All Delighted People”, a stunning track that was well over 10 minutes and took more twists and turns then perhaps any Sufjan song before it. The song is broken into two distinct parts, the first beginning with a solemn opening with Sufjan singing over a French horn before building towards a triumphant cacophony of instruments with trumpets, distorted guitar, and drum fills (all while interjecting lines from “Sounds of Silence”). The second half of the song is much more melodic and centered around the repeated lyric “I love you alot, I love you from the top of my heart” with vocal harmonies, staccato horns, and lovely piano orchestration. I can’t wait to hear this song recorded, I think it will blow people away.
Being that he was in the Illinois, Sufjan Stevens couldn’t get away without playing a few songs from his most acclaimed album. The devastatingly beautiful “Casimir Pulaksi Day” was played first and was as moving and heart-wrenching as ever. The song also included one of the more humorous moments of the night, when Sufjan’s voice cracked on of the high notes and he stopped to practice his vocal scales saying “the second try is always better”. “Jacksonville” was also played and featured one of the band’s tightest instrumental performances. “Chicago” closed the main set and was played acoustically with a horn solo during the bridge and outro.
Amidst the new songs played was one that was familiar to those who saw Sufjan Stevens on his 2006 tour (or have listened to live recordings), “Majesty Snowbird”. He began the song by playing the main riff and joking that he wished he had that as his ringtone or doorbell. The tune is one of his prettiest and most epic compositions and though it really benefits from having a full orchestra, the stripped-down version was still nothing short of enchanting. The encore was “There’s Too Much Love” which was by far the catchiest of the new tracks played with a melody that stayed in my head long after the performance ended. The eight minute track was far from top 40 material though, with odd time signatures, glitchy electronica, space-age synthesizers, and an absolutely wild trumpet solo at the climax. All in all, I immensely enjoyed seeing Sufjan showcase these new tracks and I applaud him for exploring his more adventurous side. I feel incredibly lucky to experience of my favorite artists in such an intimate setting, and I think everybody that was present would agree that this was a truly unforgettable night.
There’s alot more Sufjan Stevens pictures after the jump. Click here for the entire set.
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