About this time last year, I saw Sufjan Stevens for the first time on his Illinois tour. They were spirited and happy, but it felt a little flat. I was told many times that it was his worst show of the tour and have always been looking to catch him a second time and compare. Though Saturday’s show felt more like a recital than a concert, it was still an absolutely fantastic performance by one of our generation’s finest songwriters.
At nearly 10pm, Sufjan came out and addressed the packed auditorium. He wore an off-white jacket, pinstriped shirt, red tie and sneakers — before the night was over, he would be down to his grey undershirt, pants and socks. But though he lost clothing, he gained support. His backing group came out in two pieces, strings first, then Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and Bryce Dessner (The National).
The set ran the gamut of Sufjan’s albums as much as any of his sets can. He opened solo with with the world premier of “Jupiter Bad June,” a song from Sufjan’s college-age concept album about the planets, and “Mistress Witch.” Then, after being joined by the full band, he ran through songs from his last five LPs.
Even more than the all-inclusive setlist, what I enjoyed most about this show was his heartfelt — or at least enjoyably untrue — between-song stories. He explained the origin of “Casmir Pulaski Day” (three people he knew died on holidays in one year — his friend on that particular one), “Mistress Witch” (his father’s unpleasant girlfriend, and “Avalanche” (his preoccupation with the Chevrolet Avalanche…?). His stories were awkward, yet charming; kind of like the gawky prom date a girl takes because he’s just so cute.
Then, at the close, Sufjan and his team left the stage to thunderous applause — a sharp contrast to the tranquility of the evening. The standing ovation lasted long enough for him to come out, bow and leave before finally indulging the audience with one final solo number.
I’ve long since given up on trying to keep track of my favorite concert moments. But should anyone ever press a gun to my temple and demand such a list, I’d never forgive myself for leaving off Sufjan’s solo encore of “To Be Alone With You.” Like the earlier performance of “Transfiguration,” the religious overtones of the song reflected the “Easter-eve” atmosphere which Sufjan referenced a few times. But more than that, it was the best example of how even a show with a thousand plus audience members can be intimate and emotional with the right performer.
Sufjan Stevens 4.7.07
Jupiter Bad June
Trees of the Field
Casmir Pulaski Day
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
Barn Owl, Night Killer
To Be Alone With You