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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sufjan Stevens at Bataclan (by Bill Kutz)

Sufjan Stevens au Bataclan

November 9, 2006

Bill Kutz

It's one thing to hear great music, but it's another thing to see greatness unfold on stage. Sufjan Stevens' recent trip to Paris has left me with a reaffirmed belief in his musical genius, but I can't help but feel that the reunion was a little bittersweet.

The last time I saw Sufjan in concert was in a small hall in Santa Cruz just after the release of Illinois. It was the perfect show: cheap tickets and a small standing crowd of 50. It was intimate, with that feeling that you get when watching local garage concerts. Sufjan's performance Santa Cruz was already heavily theatrical: his "Illinoise-makers" popped out from behind a green cubical wall (backstage!) decked in blue shirts, silk-screened with a bright orange "I" for Illinois. They danced chanting "I-L-L-I-N-O-I-S" with gold pom-poms in hand. Then maestro appeared and the magic began.

Recently at the Bataclan, I was not sure what to expect. Sufjan moved away from the spirit finger routine into something a bit more... lofty. Possibly in a drive to shake the shackles of a fandom demanding 50 state’s albums, his new obsession has been birds. The Illinoise-makers shed their cocoons and became something to the tune of the "Butterfly Band." Everyone this go-around had what looked like transparent colored paper wings of various (happy) winged creatures. True to form, there weren’t any Jabberwockies or gargoyles but dragonflies and hummingbirds. Sufjan, with largest wings of all, would sway back and forth on stage to make the Velcro totem-poll wings flap as though wanting to take flight.

The Bataclan transition was again musically flawless. Sufjan proved his ability to handle the larger venue and still keep the same rich orchestrated sounds. He even ripped some indie ear-melting chaotic tangents and brought them all back in perfect harmony. In particular, I enjoyed how some songs were finally given the monumentality they deserved, like "Dear Mr. Supercomputer" and "Man of Metropolis." They both foreground the electronic instruments usually given a more balanced place in Sufjan’s music. It's too bad he never played "Vito's Ordination Song" because the drums would have been perfect for that situation.

Yet with the larger venue much of the intimacy from the Santa Cruz venue was lost. After all, this is folk music he's playing here. Folk isn't about eight foot high marshal crates and subwoofers. Many of the songs that Sufjan is particularly celebrated for like "Casimir Pulaski Day," "John Wayne Gacy Jr.," and "Chicago" didn't really sound so hot with a bunch of extra bells and whistles. Also, when they were played in Santa Cruz, I felt like they had a much rawer, if not bare, sound like that found in the Outtakes from Michigan album. When Sufjan played "Casimir Pulaski Day," it was just he and the trumpeter. It’s a bit melodramatic, but it really felt like he was telling it from his heart. How are you supposed to capture that when the stage is so disengaging? It made me wish for the old Sufjan--i.e. the other stage.

Even if this wasn’t the case, I don't think it would have mattered much. The French are notoriously tough crowds (the mosh pits are more like flowerbeds), and the Bataclan was no different. While the concert was sitting room only, I found the crowd unusually unresponsive to the inter-song gags.

All the same, Sufjan kept his childhood stories and jokes flowing, interwoven between every couple songs. His grandmother's distaste for his music (it being "too sad") shed some humorous light on a man fairly hidden by the stories and music around him, which even he acknowledges. In Santa Cruz, after playing "John Wayne Gacy Jr.," Sufjan paused and said, "Wow, that was depressing!"

But the night was not depressing in the least. Sufjan carried the show through to the very end like any master entertainer, synergizing his music with his audience. That is why we keep coming back to his shows and why they are being continually sold out quicker with each tour (in this case, close to two months and in France!). His music has been in a constant state of evolution, and each album shows a greater understanding and maturity of the tone and structure. The question to ask now is, “What direction will his music take next?” The pleasure is that there's no answer.

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