Sufjan Stevens at the Orpheum, 10/16/10

Sufjan Stevens
October 16, 2010
The Orpheum Theater

Part awkward modern art installation and part captivating rock spectacle, Sufjan Stevens' epic Saturday night concert presented something of a pop music paradox. His two-hour set was simultaneously frustratingly uneven and wildly innovative; often too cute by half but also frequently moving. Taking to the stage with an 11-piece band featuring two shiny-clad female go-go dancers/backing vocalists and a brass section, it was clear from the jump that bombast was the order of the day. After kicking off with the title track to 2004 album Seven Swans, Stevens and his band jumped headlong into his new material and never looked back, leaving the crowd by and large nonplussed in the process.

Those fans who hadn't gotten around to hearing the tormented and highly mechanized prog-rock of Stevens' just released album Age of Adz - the album was released October 12 - were likely suffering from shell shock. Roughly 80% of Stevens' set focused on his stormy synth-driven makeover, leaving scant room for the immaculately arranged ornate folk-pop tunes on which he ascended to theater headlining status. The new hyperactive and turbulent tunes were accompanied by an equally overloaded and visually busy stage show, with the band playing with a projection screen often both behind and in front of them

While the night started with Stevens on the banjo he spent most of his time on stage without an instrument in hand, channeling the spirit of David Byrne circa Stop Making Sense and throwing himself with apparent glee into purposely awkward and robotic dance moves while stopping occasionally to trigger pre-programmed sonic spasms from his keyboard. When everything in the ambitious presentation clicked, as it did on a riveting performance of "Age of Adz" featuring otherworldly end-of-days animation that effectively heightened the song's mood of already arch drama, the result was captivating. But unfortunately about half the time the results felt more like apocalypse hour on PBS Kids, with the visual components of the projections too often slapdash and abstract, feeling both overly obtrusive and completely pointless. The usage of campy outlandish props and costumes came off similarly problematic, undercutting the presumably authentic sentiments of anguish at the core of the new tunes.

Wisely, to give the audience a breather from all the excess stimulation (and presumably quell any incipient crowd riot) Stevens did occasionally revert to his former fragile folkie self. Ditching the light shows and massive ensemble arrangements in favor of straightforward pared down renditions of slowed-paced acoustic tunes like "Heirloom" and "Enchanting Ghost." But even then he denied the audience the benefit of much familiarity, favoring songs from the All Delighted People EP, not yet eight weeks old. I'm all for artists playing new material, and Stevens is to be commended for having the intestinal fortitude to go out in front of thousands and try something new rather than fall back on the old standbys guaranteed to goose the crowd. By the same token, particularly in a large sold-out crowd where people paid good money to be there, there's a covenant of sorts between artist and audience that at least a few favorite chestnuts will be sprinkled in throughout the night, as it's in those mass sing-along moments of communal connection that concerts frequently make the leap from run-of-the-mill to transcendent.

By the time Stevens and his band were bringing an over-the-top close to the 25-minute "Impossible Soul," a few dozen audience members had left, too shaken by the sight of their folk hero crooning in auto-tune and prancing about like a balance-challenged Backstreet Boy to stay in their seats. During the entirety of the song, much as I had the rest of the night, I found myself flitting between admiration and annoyance at Stevens' high-wire act, his willingness to push musical boundaries seemingly inextricable from his patience-trying stage theatrics. Say what you will about the night's musical merits - and critics and audiences are already saying plenty on what is turning out to be a highly polarizing return to the touring spotlight -  Stevens was never boring.

Critic's bias: Finds indie-rock culture's unhealthy obsession without outsider art as more than a little bit troubling on multiple levels.
The crowd: So young that there was virtually no line for alcohol despite a capacity crowd.
Overheard in the crowd:  Lots of nervous chuckling when Sufjan turned to auto-tune.
Random notebook dump: "A lot of these new songs are about heartbreak. To make the heartbreak more palatable we're going to do some funky dancing." - Sufjan Stevens, introducing the song "Too Much."
Set Length: 2 hours

Set list:
Seven Swans
Too Much
Age of Adz
I Walked
The Owl & the Tanager
Get Real Get Right
Now That I'm Older
Enchanting Ghost
Impossible Soul

Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
Casimir Pulaski Day
The Dress Looks Nice on You

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