Caught the Sufjan Stevens show at Town Hall last night. It was a beautiful theatrical extravaganza — costumes, inflatables and video imagery for every song (though some were simple abstract kaleidoscope designs.) The songs sounded bigger live, maybe partly because the band included 6 strings, 3 brass players, singers, drums, bass, guitar and Celeste (or xylophone) — but I think the live dynamic helped, too. Many songs were structured with very quiet verses (Sufjan’s voice rarely raises above a whisper) and then soaring brass and strings as instrumental counterpoint.
The feeling was of whispered intimate reminiscences of a midwestern childhood juxtaposed with their transcendent implications — the glory of the world discovered in the backyard, on a cross country trip, or at summer camp. Videos that looked like super 8 movies helped reinforce the aura of transcendental nostalgia, along with costumes that looked like they came out of a Jr. High theater production (everyone wore bird or butterfly wings and matching outfits.) Inflatable Supermen and santas were tossed off the balcony into the audience during appropriate songs — more images of childhood myths. It certainly all hung together.
Unlike most pop concerts, which often appear to be merely a string of songs, this came pretty close to being a coherent theater piece. Some songs were more memorable than others, but that’s normal, and it didn’t really matter in this context — the evening was more about establishing a mood of ecstatic reverie than delivering hooks.
[Photo by sarahana]
I also felt was what I can only describe as a kind of Protestant reserve and reticence. Sufjan’s voice — most of the time a fragile introverted whisper (see also Chet Baker or João Gilberto) — was juxtaposed in this case with the emotional and even majestic spiritual release of his string and brass melodies. As if what he was feeling inside, but couldn’t express, was expressed in these instrumental passages. The other band members also remained pretty stoic throughout — a little swaying was about it for dancing. To me this is a typical of the Northern European religious heritage — British shoe-gazer bands being the prime example — fierce and grandly romantic music played by immobile people who rarely smile. Glum ecstasy. Stiff upper lip and all that. Bad form to wear your heart on your sleeve, as the Queen said in the recent movie.
Sufjan did smile from time to time and told some jokes, too. With this show the reserve exploded every time the full band entered, echoing a feeling shared by the audience. One could sense people feeling, “Yes, I have so many intense passions and feelings within me, inside, I wish I could tell you”….but let the music do the talking.