Friday, January 25, 2008

The Man Of Michigan Steals Our Hearts

Sufjan Stevens

Thursday 17 January 2008
The Forum, Melbourne

There’s barely enough time to order another Corona and lemon between sets when Sufjan Stevens and his band appear onstage. It’s still early – only 9PM – and maybe it’s just me, but the lack of build-up is surprising. I’m used to long, impatient waits as processions of beefy roadies lay cable, plug amps and dead-pan their way through unintentionally comical mic checks. It’s a time-honoured tradition for the concert hall to become a rowdy, energetic waiting room and the bigger the artist, the longer the wait. Sufjan is A-list indie royalty, so I was expecting a torturous build-up of at least sixty minutes.

Instead, here he is, bounding across the stage and taking up position amongst his nine-piece accompaniment. There’s no ego on display. And in a way it makes sense: for all his eccentricities, Sufjan is down-to-earth and self-effacing and all those other adjectives that describe otherwise normal people that happen to get famous and are enormously talented.

You might expect someone else, going by the excessively long titles of some of his songs. But there’s not an ounce of pretence on his wispy frame; no ironic posturing, no cooler-than-thou hipsterism. In a way, Sufjan is more like the naïve cover art found on his albums: all unaffected charm and honest enthusiasm. When he clips a pair of large, papier-mâché wings to his back and joins a performer mid-set to dance with an electric hula-hoop, somehow it’s endearing; you cheer along and clap, you don’t roll your eyes.

There’s a genteel restraint to him, too, that carries over in his voice. Between songs he tells anecdotes about his childhood in Michigan and gives some insight into his neuroses. “I was afraid of a lot of things, as a kid. I was afraid of birds, I was afraid of trees…” he goes on, adding such fears as woollen sweaters and wasps to the mix. The anecdote leads into song – in this case, “All The Trees Of The Field…” – and a few other songs have references to childhood in some form, including “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades…” which is performed exquisitely, with lilt and poignancy.

Some songs are quietly devastating – like the sparse and aching “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” to which Sufjan plays guitar over piano accompaniment – and others are vibrant, life-affirming: the euphoric pop of “Chicago” and the joyous first movement of “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” are particularly uplifting. Sufjan’s music jumps across genres, textures and sounds – and the concert reflects this, with dramatic shifts in mood and tempo: from intimate acoustic to orchestral dance beat. The energy of the gig is restless and inventive, with extended codas developed into full-fledged sound experiments that descend into vocalised wailing and minor-key dissonance.

The band doesn’t get carried away by improvisation, though: a mid-song jam session breaks out during “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!” and is pulled back on track to a slower tempo, the vocal harmonies are crisp and tight, and Sufjan sings through cupped hands into the mic for the song’s second movement, lending his voice a tremor and reverb even more mournful than the recorded version:

I cried myself to sleep last night / And the ghost of Carl, he approached my window…

Behind the band, a collage of video footage is thrown onto a screen. Sometimes, the juxtaposition of abstract images and music is merely pleasant; a fancy music visualizer that builds to the sounds played on stage. During “All The Trees…” a young boy (Sufjan?) plays in a field of tall grass in grainy Super 8 footage, faux-home video style. The footage lends a slight menace to the song, a menace that is always lurking around the edges of Sufjan’s music, softly insistent.

Religious themes frequent the narratives of his songs and though he doesn’t preach, Sufjan can make music a moving, spiritual experience. Throughout the two-hour set, the crowd is hushed and reverent – only breaking their silence with the kind of ecstatic applause usually reserved for urging on an encore. It’s not just the gratification of a long drought broken by rain – this is Sufjan’s first Australian tour – it’s the sheer joy of hearing beautiful music. The band sounds amazingly bright and clear, each component is isolated and hangs in the air: the vocal harmonies sit atop powerful layers of guitar chord and drums; you can break down the brass ensemble and listen to each instrument individually. The gig’s acoustics do great justice to the recorded experience of Sufjan’s music.

Emotionally, the experience is strangely rewarding and though I cannot claim to be any closer to deciphering his often opaque lyrics, the concert brings me closer to an appreciation for the spirit of Sufjan’s music. It is of a world governed by natural beauty and wonderment, of memory, guilt and anxiety – but ultimately one of joy in the present moment and hope for the future. I thoroughly enjoyed the present visitation of this winged messenger and I look forward to his future return.

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