In the language of love, this moment knows no name. Thus, I draw words from a different, darker place: the realm of objectivity. Reporters report on road accidents, right? That’s their job, and it’s mine too. But this time I know someone in the car, or at least I know I love him, and so the words, well they just won’t come.
Sufjan Stevens + Nicolai Dunger
24 Nov 2004: Black Cat Washington, DC
“Nicolai Dunger is good. Really fucking good.”
That’s me exploding with enthusiasm, pushing my friends into the unknown. I’ve cashed in my scene points (both of them) on this one, imploring my buddies to come along. Yeah sure, Sufjan Stevens is great, but it’s the import, the opener, that caught my eye.
Dunger’s lisp, his Van Morrison croon, ripe with scratchy blues flavor, is so quintessentially American, so soulful and southern, that I spun his record for a year before I realized that he’s white. It took another few months to learn that he’s Swedish.
Dunger walks across the stage, face glowing; an enthusiastic opener. His hair is meticulously waved to the side; he’s got a perfectly regimented part; blonde hair proofed and pristine. There’s an energy in his expression, one that marks his features. He’s magnetic, a well-dressed good-guy. Lock up your daughters, there’s a smoothie on the prowl.
Dunger takes his seat center stage, tenderly embracing his acoustic guitar. Though his work is often riddled with larger orchestrations, Dunger takes to the road alone. He approached the stage with similar focus last year, when I saw him in New York. The result was stunning.
I’ve seen 10 shows in the last two weeks, and this is the one I’ve been waiting for. Lay it on me, Nicolai.
I’ve lost face. My friends go down to the bar and I’m left to pace the crowd, distressed. I listen as snarky comments begin to eclipse the PA.
Slow croons at half speed? He sounds like Van Morrison all right drunk. Dunger is plodding through the songs, refusing to push out his inspired, pained wails, the ones that give his work power. He’s following some internal metronome set to half tempo. These aren’t the same songs. Well they are, but played this way they’re barely recognizable. There are no rollicking blues riffs; they’ve all become slow, swaggering ballads, each more labored than the next.
The rise of disinterested voices hits critical mass and Dunger’s singing falls into the shadows. The Black Cat boasts a serious sound system and I’ve never seen voices match it, not like this.
Dunger reins his performance in, calling for an audience sing-a-long. He lays out a set of tonal wails, begging the few remaining fans to follow. The part is complex, and the audience, those who can hear him, are hardly moved. Dunger bangs his guitar to a hard stop, raising his hands to voices, voices that do not emerge. Confused, he comments “We’ve done 50 shows, and you’re the worst crowd ever.” No Nicolai, you’re wrong. I still love you (I bought the new record after the gig) but we aren’t the problem. The problem was, well it’s hard to get the words out, but buddy you sucked.
I’m devastated, so devastated that by the time Sufjan Stevens emerges I’m borderline floating, away from this horrible place. I’m caught in a melodramatic melancholy, lost and alone.
That’s where Stevens meets me: In the air, at the edge of my sullen ruminations. Stevens’ performance is for me alone, a loving attempt to soothe my broken spirit, my self- indulgent loneliness.
Stevens and his band emerge in matching Boy Scout uniforms, ornamented with scarves bearing American flags. The band opens with a celebratory song, touting the virtues of the various American states. Eventually they settle on Michigan, the singer’s home.
The band immediately dispels the sense of kitschy American fervor, a hard task given their outfits, and lays out a slow, lamenting version of “Flint (for the unemployed).” Stevens moves through the song’s best lines wearing a pained expression, slowly pushing the words forward. I pretend to try/ Even if I try/ alone
Steven’s music has a whispering, apologetic quality. There’s a quiet desperation hidden beneath the surface. His voice is unobtrusive, soft, and serene. Live, this simplicity of sound is stunning. Like nervous teens at a recital, the band delivers song after song, each with slight reservation. This timid spirit lends the music an innocent, well-meaning charm. It’s welcoming, soft, and loving.
The band plays primarily from 2003’s sleeper hit Michigan, sprinkling pieces from 2004’s Seven Swans. Stevens is an adorable front-man. Nervous and quirky at times, he manages his leadership duties with a cool, focused demeanor.
The band’s crisp, inviting tones are far more melodic in person. The drumming is straightforward, marching beats made quiet with brushes. It’s a beautiful, understated approach that allows the songs’ quiet beauty to emerge. Liberal use of trumpet distinguishes the songs from their recorded versions, adding a warm completeness to the music.
So Stevens is a Christian. So what? I know you didn’t say it, but someone did. The more reverential Seven Swans has been dismissed by many for its allusions to the singer’s faith. I understand; I feared it too. Artistic expression is great, but bible-thumping is not.
But there’s nothing condescending about Stevens performance—or really the record, either. Stevens possesses a powerful spirituality and that’s not a bad thing. It’s the fuel for his music. And what fuel it is. He’s clean cut and talented—though the thick stubble on his face seems a rebellion against his otherwise unspoiled appearance.
Towards the end of the set the band launches into a cover of “America the Beautiful.” Their over the top rendition seems in earnest. This might be a step too far, but we make it through all right. No winning battle is fought without a few casualties.
The band members stand in a row and hold hands for their curtain call, something straight from a Boy Scout camp talent show. Sufjan reemerges moments later for a final affecting performance: the soft, dark “Romulus.”
Appropriate, because I’m still floating through space, wallowing in my post-Dunger melancholy. I’m well past Romulus, moving into the outer reaches of a desperate, foreign galaxy. Thanks for trying Sufjan. You were made for these moments in empty spaces, where there is no sound. “I pretend to try/ Even if I try/ alone.”