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Friday, November 17, 2006

Sufjan Stevens at Bataclan (by Vanessa Lash)

Sufjan Stevens at Le Bataclan
Nov. 9, 2006

For the last few days, I’m sure I’ve come across as a bit of a Christmas fanatic, that is, at least to any strangers passing me on the street who’ve heard me sing “siiiiiiilent niiiight, hoooooly niiiight” along with my ipod. The culprit of said apparent holiday cheer is not actually an early boost of holiday spirit, but is rather Sufjan Stevens, and specifically the silent night refrain at the end of his, “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” released later this month on the 5-cd “Songs For Christmas” compilation. Like most Sufjan Stevens tracks, however, it works in the headphones, but on stage this song becomes a complete, beautiful wall of sound. I learned this last night at his sold-out concert at Le Bataclan.

My I’m-on-the-guest-list, let’s-go-find-an-amazing-restaurant-on-Rue-Oberkampf-we’ve-got-time friend and I were a little late to the show; when we showed up at nine, the massive line out front had subsided, and the vibe inside Le Bataclan felt a bit like walking into an elementary school play in a crowded auditorium. A packed audience sat silently in the converted theater, and the show onstage offered a glimpse of the best kind of childlike nostalgia – Sufjan and his team had each donned huge wings, something in between Halloween costumes and gorgeous kites, and the screen behind them offered home video style projections to highlight each song.

The sheer extent of the stage show, including Stevens’ brass section, drummer, kickass sidelines do-everything girl and roughly five other musicians, a piano, ten inflatable Santas leaned up against each other, and various other instruments, props and people made the Bataclan appear suddenly intimate. Sufjan is the best kind of singer-songwriter, and weaves his banjo, bell, horn and piano-laden songs around intensely American themes and concepts. The most notable of these has been his 50 states project, which to date has produced the impressive Greetings from Michigan – The Great Lake State and the much acclaimed Illinois. That a man whose songs include titles such as, “Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I shake the dirt from my sandals as I run” would have a stage show that is lovingly spectacular is no surprise, and the Sufjan clan demonstrated this in boundless ways throughout the course of the night. A highlight was the performance of “Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head (Restore, Rebuild, Reconsider!)" which was led into by Stevens after he talked about the Tigers going to the World Series, and how “Whenever we play this song, good things happen in Detroit.” Well, good things happen in Paris, too. Swirling kaleidoscopes led into towering skyscrapers on the screen behind them as the entire gang gave “Detroit” their all, bells chiming, piano thundering.

Stevens peppered most songs – a good amount from the recent Illinois and the accompanying outtakes disk - with prefaces like that one, quirky and sincere, offering little stories often as nostalgic as the video footage playing behind the band. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” was ushered in by a story about summer camp, sinking canoes, and being “eight or nine,” and the hushed, enchanted audience loved it. Sufjan introduced “Magesty Snowbird” as the group’s “theme song” for the tour, as they were debuting it on stage all over the world. Introducing “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” Sufjan explained his history of recording Christmas carols for his grandmother, who cries at his normal material and calls it too “weird.” This got a laugh from the audience, but it’s the weirdness-meets-heartbreak that so many of Stevens’ songs hold up with a power fist (or banjo) that made this show, like so many of his tracks and projects, so perfect.

Download “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever from Asthmatic Kitty Records

See a bit of “Casimir Pulaski Day” from last night’s show:

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