Live review: Sufjan Stevens @ the Paramount TheatreBy John Hendrickson | November 3rd, 2010 | 15 comments
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.”
Joe McCabe is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. Check out his website.