Sufjan Stevens maximizes experimentalism at the Paramount Theatre - Reverb

Live review: Sufjan Stevens @ the Paramount Theatre

Sufjan Stevens laid all of his insecurities, vulnerabilities and uncertainties on stage Tuesday night, and still managed to present the image of a holier-than-thou rockstar. The “Chicago” singer’s self-presentation was as calculated as his most sprawling, zig-zag compositions, and the audience was left with a curious binary image. He took the stage wearing angel wings with a banjo on his shoulder, and left wearing day-glo sunglasses and a campy sideways visor.

The 35 year-old midwesterner made his name as a troubadour 10 years ago with minimalist folk ballads. Soft banjo medleys and a trademark boyish whisper easily carried Stevens through EPs and a lauded concept album about his home state of Michigan. Most of the world met Stevens in 2005 with his ode to his neighboring state, “Illinoise,” which soon became one of the definitive albums of the decade.

After publicly abandoning (and mocking) his lifelong plan to record a concept album for all 50 states, Stevens considered quitting music altogether. With his October release, “The Age of Adz,” Stevens returned to the indie spotlight as a troubled, avant-garde experimenter with hints of schizophrenia.

Both sides of the singer’s persona were played out at the Paramount Theatre on Tuesday night.

This was far from a dream set list — fans expecting to hear past hits like “Casmir Pulaski Day” and “Jacksonville” went home empty-handed. Instead, Stevens stuck to his lush, if abrasive, newer material with all of the peaks and valleys of classic Pink Floyd. There were two drummers, a horn section, dancing female back-up singers and hypnotic visuals projected on a giant screen behind the 11-piece band. Songs like “Too Much” and “Vesuvius” bounced and blipped through tricky shuffle beats while the 20-plus minute “Impossible Soul” morphed into a triumphant dance party.

Through it all, Stevens made a point to muse over worldly ideals with his audience between nearly every song. He preached from the pulpit of center stage and the capacity crowd of hipsters young and old listened quietly, at times awkwardly applauding his half-baked ruminations.

Songs like “Get Real Get Right” and “Now That I’m Older” best illustrated Stevens’ conflicting mindsets. He’s an atheist (seemingly), though God-fearing with Christian values. He’s nearing middle-age, though holding on tightly to the whimsical nature of his youth. He likens heartbreak to the apocalypse, though remains so self-absorbed as to alienate those around him (or those in front of him, who paid top-dollar to see him).

Tuesday’s show felt like a page from a more groundbreaking era of pop music. Though not as monumental, Stevens’ “artistic disregard” was a glimpse of Miles Davis performing with his back to his audience, of Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, of the Who destroying thousands of dollars worth of their own equipment just for the beauty of the moment. While Stevens’ place in history is yet to be determined, his live performance presented a refreshing taste of an artist concerned more with his art than with hit songs and ticket sales. And, at the end of it all, we still got to hear “Chicago.”

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John Hendrickson is the Managing Editor of Reverb and a multimedia journalist for The Denver Post.

Joe McCabe is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. Check out his website.

  • Scott Fassett

    I thought it was amazing. He’s always had that misunderstood artist persona, and choosing to only play songs fitting his new era of music fits that perfectly. He almost looked bored playing through Chicago, but looked like a happy little kid dancing to Impossible Soul. He’s always been more concerned with his art than hit records, and that’s what I like about him. While he may have left off several key tracks, the show was a visual and audio spectacle that I’d gladly pay to see again. nnMy show of the year thus far.

  • Allison Berger

    considering selling my philly tickets after reading this review. i want to hear new songs, sure, but i also want to hear illinois, michigan, and seven swans. hm.

  • Fazer420

    he oopened with 7 swans

  • Madeline

    He actually opened with Seven Swans (Although it was more of a rock version), and of course there was an encore in which he played 3 classics. Very much worth it!

  • Giod888

    Umm… He’s an Episcopalian, not an atheist.He’s about as far away as you can get from atheism, actually.

  • Rushharvey

    You better sell them then b/c he won’t play any of that stuff. what a great show.

  • Swansong, please

    OVERRATED. This guy is the Meatloaf of our generation. What a hack.

  • Jbaker

    Like the Japanese Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes shirt! I grew up in Battle Creek and am going to see Sufjan next week in Boston. Can’t wait!

  • Chris Martin

    Hey, I went into the show hoping for some old stuff, too, but as far as me feeling like I missed out…I totally didn’t. His new stuff is so mind-blowing live that when he closed his set with Chicago I felt disappointed. It was the lowest part of the show for me.

  • Chris Martin

    I’d buy them and come out to Philly…that’s how good the show was!

  • Randeep

    I wish he would come the UK. I really want to see him live and The Age Of Adz is in the running for my favourite album ever. Sufjan is my fave musician ever, and I just wish he would come here.

  • Kcrum6

    You are insane! His new album is groundbreaking. If you sale these tickets you will miss an amazing artistic performance. I feel sorry for those who don’t get it.

  • Misty-rae

    When any artist releases new music, the chances are…they will play mainly their new music. Correct? I think so. If ever you have a chance to see an artist who can make you feel as much as he does when he’s performing, never let that opportunity go. This is art, no a rock show. If I could relive that show over and over again, I would. It was beautiful. I even noticed a young 20-something guy crying once it ended. He has that impact.

  • Misty

    just go on and see the current setlists. You’ll get an idea of what he’s been playing.

  • Skiptracer

    Crying? At a Sufjan show? What melodrama.