Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Last night was the night of the Formal, or, also the final performance of Sufjan Stevens's Pep Rally week. For the encore, a prom king and queen were selected from the audience and thereafter the band played a cover of "Can't Help Falling In Love" while the winning couple (along with the minyan-plus band members) danced awkwardly onstage. It was either charming or annoying. Some groaned at what they assumed was fey irony. Others momentarily suspended their cynicism and giggled in sincere appreciation.

We learned that the previous night was Fake Tattoo and Facial Hair Night, the night before that was Pirate Night, then there was Fake an Injury Night, and finally, Backwards Night. Sufjan Stevens, the Brooklyn folk ingénue, brought his newest album, a tribute to the windiest American state Illinois, to breathtaking life, frosting each of the five sold-out shows with his distinctively quirky sense of humor. And despite the cheerleading outfits, the spirit fingers, the painful pop-culture references found throughout the cheers ("Balki Bartakomus," "Webster Popadopilis"), and the falling colorful balloons dropped during the encore, the night was completely bereft of irony. Sufjan truly believes in his music and moreover, he believes in his performance. The man can wear a silky clown outfit made from the pattern of the American flag and still move a nearly stoic audience to an absolute silence. Not an easy feat. Especially in this town.

Stevens began the evening with the live-only introduction song "50 States," an invitation to join him on the evening's musical journey. The song starts softly as a nonsensical and whispered role call through America but eventually builds into a celebratory march. It felt almost like a television theme song forecasting the subjects of Sufjan Stevens's presumptuous 50 States project (an album devoted to each). As Sufjan made mention of certain locations, pockets of the crowd cheered for their probable hometown. Incidentally, during the last Michigan tour, the band went by the Michigan Militia. This time around, they were the Illinoisemakers.

[The Illiinoisemakers]
"It's part of the act, the 50 States/
Pack up your bags, it's never too late.
From Alabama to Arkansas/
Follow Alaska, say what you saw.
Swim in the ocean, Maryland may,
Then Massachusetts, what a great place/
Go to New Hampshire, Missouri too
It's not Virginia but it'll do

[Sufjan solo]
Take a drive to Ohio,
We rent running through Ohio
And my favorite avenue,
I tried on all my favorite shoes

[The Illiinoisemakers]
There's Mississippi, Kentucky blue
Rhode Island rage and a Tennessee too/
See Oklahoma or Michigan
There's a Nevada, see Washington win.
Oh, Arizona, Colorado
Connecticut Yankee, love Ohio
Louisiana, Delaware who?
Go Minnesota, we're thinking of you.

[Sufjan solo]
When we came to Washington,
We went running through the rain.
And my favorite city park,
And my favorite sunny day..."

[Listen to the "50 States Theme" here and a live performance by Stevens in Toronto.]

The set throughout the night focused on material from Illinois, by far Sufjans's strongest material yet (see my review of the album here). "Jacksonville," "Decatur," and "The Tallest Man" sounded insecure but well rehearsed nevertheless. Sufjan is a timid presence, unsure of his status as independent music's newest folk hero, but his music, both orchestrated and sublime, made for a poignant evening. Like the 50 States theme song, this night was a celebration of our country, a declaration of independence. The sometimes-silly vibe circulating throughout the room was ultimately about the suspension of the cool factor that perpetuates itself in the local scene. Much has been said about Sufjan's talent--truthfully, I think we've only seen the beginning of it. After hearing the serene calm and simplistic beauty of "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us!", I could not believe in an artist more. Despite Stevens's unfortunate pun "feeling the Illinoise," it's actually quite appropriate. Experience a night like tonight and you heard music with feeling.
And today, music with feeling is so very rare.


Post a Comment

<< Home