2009 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Sufjan Stevens Thrills With Hits, Bores With Jams

Indie-Rock Singer-Songwriter Tries Out New Songs On Short Tour

MADISON, Wis. — Like the best stage performers, indie-rock marvel Sufjan Stevens is a master of illusion.

Photo: Asthmatic Kitty

Photo: Asthmatic Kitty

In some instances, a performer can impress an audience by reproducing something so it seems like it was created in that moment and wasn’t the product of hours of practice, rehearsal and careful consideration. While audience members know they’re actually getting a “show,” they’re all hoping to get a peek at a genuine, spontaneous, creative moment. The very best make the crowd think they’ve seen that moment even when they haven’t.

At Monday night’s concert at the Majestic Theatre, Stevens partially dispelled the illusion by essentially turning the stage curtain invisible. He offered a few hundred fans a glimpse as he and his six-member backing band broke in some brand new songs for the majority of their hour and 45 minutes onstage. Stevens called it a “live workshop,” a chance to feel out these new compositions and to establish a groove as he looks to follow up a breakthrough album that’s already four years old. The verdict? His magic remains powerful, but he needs to follow the template used on his older songs and cut back on the noodling.

With Stevens, the performer’s charade goes beyond the façade on the stage. Concert-goers think they’re getting glimpse of a sensitive, imaginative songwriting eccentric. His gorgeous melodies offset by haphazard instrumentation and seemingly half-baked arrangements suggest that he’s more of an untutored savant than an orchestral mastermind. Similarly, many fans might be fooled by his vow to record a cycle of songs for each U.S. state (he’s completed two) and neglect to notice the concept is just a thematic cover story to unite a set of personal, deep-rooted examinations of the human condition. Throw in a few local place names and he’s got an album that could be about Iowa or Hawaii.

On Monday, Stevens joked that he and his group were “just having some fun” during their current mini-tour of the East Coast and Midwest. His onstage focus, however, said otherwise, as did his sporadic apologies for not playing songs that were more familiar to the crowd. There was serious work happening there and glances exchanged between the musicians suggested that they felt they needed to be on their toes around the waifish, Michigan-bred boss. The songs’ arrangements and set list have evolved throughout the two-week trip and by Monday night, most of kinks should have been worked out. In that time, however, little was done to truly refine the new songs, streamline their episodic nature and make them less long-winded.

Anyone hoping to hear a preview of a new Wisconsin-themed album was in for a disappointment. The only nod to his Badger state fans was the blue University of Wisconsin shirt that Stevens wore on his skinny frame. Instead of crooning about cheese and brats, Stevens initially sang about Wisconsin’s neighbors as he paired the new material that he wanted to audition with oldies dating from before he released the widely acclaimed “Illinois.”

The grim gospel of “Seven Swans” foreshadowed most of the evening. The group was tasked with fleshing out convoluted compositions with a basement band’s toolkit of sounds, sometimes impressive with its novel-sounding flourishes, but other times lost in the emphasis on self-expression over accessibility. As Stevens half-heartedly plucked a banjo, his bandmates backed him sheepishly, mostly adding a few embellishments to create an apocalyptic soundscape consisting of “Bitches Brew” horn echoes, keyboard seething and atonal hissing. Stevens’ voice picked up at the climax and a drum crash cued the musicians that it was time to power up for the conclusion.

Simpler songs worked better and elicited the strongest responses from the audience. “Upper Peninsula” and “To Be Alone With You” were more inviting selections that seemed to showcase the full breadth of Stevens’ gifts and the potential lurking in his band. Both songs were dreamy delicate ballads built on Stevens’ whispery singing and barely audible guitar strum.

The new songs had no such sense of fragility, even when Stevens really wanted that. The first, “Impossible Souls,” is what Stevens told the audience was his response to criticism for never writing a love song. The group attempted to create something that tugged at heart strings using in a little volume and Sonic Youth-ish jamming instead of a spirit of acoustic-guitar tenderness. The union of an electric piano reggae rhythm with a lengthy guitar solo sounded like Stevens wanted to do all the talking in this relationship and was ultimately saying the wrong things. The fact that Stevens himself devoted several measures to strangling sound out of his axe — attacking it with his fingers and manipulating it with effects pedals — signaled a greater degree of self-indulgence than he’s demonstrated before. Even the late emergence of some squawking electric beats and pretty vocal harmonies between Stevens and keyboardist Nedelle Torrisi couldn’t salvage this cut.

“Don’t be distracted,” Stevens sang with deadpan charm in the tune’s final refrain, but instead of giving voice to the song’s Romeo maybe this was his better judgment speaking to his songwriting self. It was a message that he didn’t to take to heart.

“All Delighted People” had greater potential than “Impossible Souls,” but it fell victim to a cluttered arrangement and sagging drive. Stevens’ vocal delivery begins with a hint of country yodel before surrendering to his familiar soft-spoken seduction. The lyrics were a tad pretentious (“Don’t be a rascal”) and quote at one point from Paul Simon’s “Sound Of Silence.” Of bigger concern was the extraneous rumble in the middle of the cut that features bashing drums, horn blasts and guitar abuse. Again, an exquisite vocal outro between Stevens and Torrisi forge a new dynamic that’s intriguing, but isn’t fully borne out. Likewise, “Age Of Adz” was a spiraling, noise-rock shambles apart from the vocal harmonies, which underline the idea that in the midst of the instrumental chaos, Stevens has an unmistakable knack for creating vocal hooks.

“That was kind of exhausting,” Stevens said, after they finished a lengthy jam. “We should do that one last tomorrow.”

Offering a momentary breather from the musical explorations came when Stevens led the band back into old favorites in the middle and again at the end of the show. With those songs, Stevens was able to wake the audience from pretending this was a gallery opening. “Casimir Pulaski Day,” a bounding acoustic-guitar gem from “Illinois,” and a banjo folk cover of “Lakes Of Canada” reminded listeners of Stevens’ power to push forward the singer-songwriter tradition in his own part arcane, part romantic style.

The best songs from the “Illinois” album — saved for the end — were the uncontested highlight of the concert. “Jacksonville” perfectly combined Stevens’ bookish allure as a singer with the band’s energy. The musicians again zeroed in on adding accents to the core of the song, but finally, here was a melody finally strong enough to weather the transitions and asides. The horn blasts from a trumpet and trombone perfectly replicated the punch of the recorded version. For the finale, Stevens stripped the instruments back for “Chicago” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” Switching to acoustic guitar, he fingerpicked the notes, emphasizing the haunting qualities of both songs. He approached them as if he was a folk singer attempting a sanctified murder ballad instead of garage band leader’s attempt at birthing a mini-opera.

Unfortunately, Stevens hadn’t completely given up on that ambition. Set closer “Too Much Love” offered moments of viability before it too succumbed to too many tiresome musical excursions. If there was a chorus, it was lost in the heady jamming that Stevens and the band lapsed into. If Steven intended this as a live rehearsal, this song really underlined the point.

Opening act Cryptacize also seemed unfit for the stage. Frontwoman Torrisi doubled as one of Steven’s players and while her band was more consistent, they were also unremarkable. Their music — a combination of normal college-rock fare skewed with quirky, mathematical sensibilities — wasn’t an opportunity to see the next best band in the country. Instead, it appeared like Stevens put them on the bill to return a favor. The audience took Stevens’ tacit endorsement seriously and listened patiently through their brief set probably more than they should have.

Patience was a virtue at this show that was rewarded. Stevens’ four best-loved songs from “Illinois” were the gift for those sticking it through this run through. Stevens has two more albums slated for release in October, but both are a stop gap while Stevens completes his new album. Monday’s debut of his works in progress didn’t inspire complete confidence for whenever he records his new album. The magnitude of his old songs shouldn’t allow the duller moments of the concert to prejudice his effort too much.

“All my secrets revealed,” Stevens jokingly confessed at one point.

Maybe it would have been better if he kept most of these behind the curtain.

Remaining Sufjan Stevens Tour Dates:

  • Tuesday, Sept. 29, Bloomington, Ind.
  • Thursday, Oct. 1, Toronto
  • Friday, Oct. 2, Montreal
  • Saturday, Oct. 3, Portland, Maine
  • Sunday and Monday, Oct. 4-5, New York
  • Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 6-7, Brooklyn, N.Y.

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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