In the confines of a bathroom stall, down the grand staircase to the plush Ladies' Lounge of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, I hear an indifferent-sounding woman in a speaker that seems to be right above my head: "Final call, I repeat, final call until the concert resumes." Upon her first drony note, seven toilets flush in succession and just above the din of wasted gallons, I actually hear a girl shriek.
After nearly being clotheslined by a rushed couple that refused to let go of each other's hands as we all make the buffed marble ascent to the concert hall, I am relieved to be guided to the safety of my assigned seat in Orchestra B; thank you, Mr. Usher. All around, people are buzzing with anticipation... until the lights go down. And the energy frequency and decibel levels go way up.
Out comes Sufjan Stevens—donning sparkly MC Hammer pants and a T-shirt I recognize from his merch table—rolling roughly 10 deep (notably including pair of drummers, a shiny horn section and two back-up singers that appeared to have arrived in Portland via intergalactic teleportation).
With everyone poised and ready, Stevens standing front-and-center at his conductor's stand, the group starts right into "All Delighted People," off of the recently released EP with the same name. There is a line repeated throughout the song, soliciting some participation—"All delighted people, raise their hands!"—and as the refrain echoed through the room, audience members began rocketing limbs into the air and waving them slowly. It all began to resemble packed Sundays at the Episcopal church that my mother would drag my very Jewish father and me to from time to time: which seemed an appropriate scenario to enter into during the first song of the first show I'd ever seen by the guy who probably helped lead many a Williamsburg 20-something back to the open arms of Jesus. Regardless, it was a nice moment, and set the tone for a show that was to be received with utmost care and attentiveness.
Now, as you may have already heard, Sufjan Stevens' newest record, The Age of Adz, is an electro-orchestral monster laden with industrial hip-hop beats, mountains of reverb and various vocal effects and at least one bonafide slow jam, albeit bathed in lazer juice (see: "I Walked"). This could easily throw a fragile Sufjan fan, tethered to the hushed Seven Swans or the sprawling symphonic concept albums of the early aughts, for a serious loop. It's a record of cold concrete, dealing with love and the inevitable apocalypse—of the world, but also that which follows heartbreak close behind—and could easily be swept under the rug as a phase, garnering lazy M.I.A. and Of Montreal comparisons. However, as self-indulgent and phony as a shift so seemingly drastic may appear—though there have been telltale signs in the past, namely Enjoy Your Rabbit and various moments on the BQE soundtrack—there is no mistaking that this particular body of work is very much his own beast.
In fact, I think Sufjan said it best during a 15-minute rant about the late Lousiana folk artist and self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson (whose post-apocalyptic art scenes, like this one, were often animated and projected on a giant screen behind the band throughout the performance), before the song "Get Real, Get Right." While describing the man's downward spiral into schizophrenia, he began spouting off about the companion he found in the zany freedom of Robertson's art and how it brings to light "impulse, feeling, sensation and sound." And that sequence resounded with me for the remainder of the performance, helping to translate sloppily choreographed dance routines, native american flute solos played on a toy Casio, and the potentially horrifying sound of Sufjan's signature croon turned through the T. Pain iPhone application into tiny little impulses magnified and shuffled through the labyrinthine creative brain of Stevens. And then, I did something I would have never guessed I'd do at the show and joined nearly 3,000 people in rising to their feet and dancing (which happened during a particular groovy part of the 25-minute, genre-spanning "Impossible Soul").
It was strange to hear an entire set of unfamiliar songs from Stevens, sort-of like fumbling for light switches in a new apartment; you know that you'll know your way around soon, but for now, there's an evident vulnerability and annoyance attached to something that you want to be comfortable. And he shed some light on that fact, thanking the audience for being so open and attentive when it's likely they didn't know there would be two new records back when they shelled out 40-something dollars for a ticket. Not to say that the entire set was in a foreign language, though; personally, I clutched close to the more worn fabrics of songs like "Vesuvius," or the utterly heartbreaking "The Owl and The Tanager," where Sufjan showcased his unwavering ability to silence and command a packed room armed with only his voice and a piano.
However, that fact is why the encore, including three stand-outs from 2005's Come on! Feel the Illinoise!—"Chicago," "Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois," and "Casimir Pulaski Day—was greeted with more shrieks and squeals and tears you might send your best friend's way if you hadn't seen them in five years and heard they were dead. The audience seemed so desperate for something recognizable and thus probably enjoyed the songs ten times more then they would have during the regular set and left without feeling totally cheated. Which, if calculated as I predict it was, is a genius way to expose a whole bunch of new (and pretty fucking bizarre) material without getting nailed with rotten tomatoes (but surely upping the probability of having lacy undergarments tossed your way).
The mass exodus of the Schnitzer was an oddly sated one—much more tranquil than the entrance—and after a moment of relatively quiet reflection, I overheard someone say, "Sufjan Stevens can do whatever the fuck he wants." So long as he keeps being earnest and insane, let that statement live on.
More photos after the jump...
Tip for End Hits?
Email them here.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!