Sufjan Stevens, resplendent in his blue and orange “Illinoisemakers” cheerleading outfit, found it hard to summon the appropriate spirit for one of the night’s many Illinois-themed cheers. It was hard to blame him. Stevens had just led his seven-piece backing band through two of the most harrowing songs in his ever-burgeoning canon—“John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” (topic: infamous and brutal serial killer) and “Casimir Pulaski Day” (topic: death of a friend from bone cancer). Sufjan perversely decided to follow these grim tunes with a sprightly cheer celebrating the city of Jacksonville, Ill., complete with choreographed dance.
31 Dec 1969: 29 July 2005, The Bluebird Theater Denver, CO
This was one of several somewhat bewildering moments. Stevens is nothing if not an extremely mixed bag: he’s a devout Christian making a living in the usually secular world of indie rock, an accomplished musician whose influences lean more towards minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Terry Riley than the current vogue of post-punk everyone, and an intellectual songwriter with unabashedly literary aspirations.
Stevens also has a weakness for gimmickry. Witness his much-ballyhooed “50 States” project or the aforementioned matching costumes he and his band wear in concert. And then there are the absurd, paragraph length song titles and those mildly cringe-inducing cheers.
At the Bluebird, Stevens seemed a little bit sheepish about the whole endeavor, as though he wasn’t fully committed to his eccentric performance tactics. But the sold out crowd, at least, was willing to play along, shouting back heartily during the call-and-response sections of the show.
To Stevens’s credit it was ultimately the music itself that made the biggest impression. His love of gimmicks would be intolerable if he wasn’t such a skilled songwriter, marrying finely detailed lyrics to impossibly beautiful melodies. The lush, complicated production of Greetings from Michigan and Illinois was necessarily stripped back onstage, but his oversized band—including horns, a banjo, a Wurlitzer organ, guitars, drums, and multiple vocalists—managed to conjure up the epic spirit of those records.
And they’re certainly one of the more versatile combos playing today. On “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!” (I mentioned those long song titles, right?), Stevens and his cohorts hit on a funky, Thriller-esque vibe that was appropriate, given the song’s subject matter. And “Jacksonville” rode an easygoing banjo line plucked discreetly off of Neil Young’s “Old Man”. The only time the ensemble really fell short was towards the end of “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!”, which failed to reach the ecstatic heights of its recorded counterpart.
As a frontman, Stevens has some growing to do. With his deer-in-the-headlights stare, and muttered, in-between song attempts at banter, he was happy to cede the spotlight to his sidemen and women. But he sounded great, whether finger picking delicately on acoustic guitar, or soloing with abandon on the Wurlitzer. And his gossamer vocals-which sound almost whispered on record-somehow managed to fill the room.
With such powerful music at his fingertips, one can’t help but wonder why Stevens feels it’s necessary to water things down with hokey onstage antics. It’s a good thing that he has a sense of humor, but in the end his gimmicks may detract attention from what really matters-his impeccable and impressive musical craftsmanship.