Sufjan Stevens | 9.24.06

The brass section hits all the right notes. The song swells to a considerable climax with about 12 different instruments playing at once. It's "Detroit" and "Chicago" all rolled up into one.

 

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Photos by Todd Owyoung 

The Pageant, St. Louis

If nothing else, 2005 was the year we all learned how to pronounce the name Sufjan (that's Soof-yawn, to those still out of the loop). The bearer of that unmistakable name has been ubiquitous since his breakthrough album, Illinois, dropped to virtually unanimous praise by critic, blogger, and fan alike. Since then, Stevens' status has ballooned from Pitchfork Media Best New Music fixture to Pitchfork's sole source of news headlines. If indie music were a Top 40 radio station, Sufjan would be "Sexy Back." You motherfuckers better watch how he attacks.

But of course you know all of that. I only mention it because of how it impacts seeing Stevens in a live setting. One year prior, Stevens and his Illinoisemakers played a fairly intimate 1,000-capacity venue. Tonight, however, I sit in The Pageant. That's right, I sit. Despite queuing up at an ungodly hour to ensure a spot close enough to stare into Sufjan's dreamy eyes, I sit in the back by the bar. It turns out that the venue failed to tell me (and more than a few disgruntled fans) of the particular seating arrangement for that night; reserved seating in all of the choice locations on the first floor, including the orchestra pit. Coupled with staff members carrying drink orders to and from the reserved section, the ambience tonight is more on par with a stadium show than an intimate singer-songwriter event. I feel the strong urge to yell "Freebird," but I restrain myself.

But for this tour, it looks like Stevens anticipated the bigger venues, and decided to turn up the bombast in kind. His backing band of about 20 or so is called the Magical Chinese Butterflies or something ridiculous like that, and all sport two feet long butterfly wings and uniforms straight out of Camp Ha Ha Tonka. (Sufjan himself, of course, wears eagle wings with a crazy ass wingspan.) And while you can't blame the dude for trying, this, like this year's bloated Illinois outtake release The Avalanche, is simply too much. OK, the wings. Flight. It's symbolic. We get it. The terrible home movies projected in the background don't help much either; how many times do we have to see a kite fall down onto a beach? What is this, 10th grade English class?

So by the time Sufjan whips out a new song, it's not inspiring as it should be. It's just another song about more of those goddamn birds. The brass section hits all the right notes. The song swells to a considerable climax with about 12 different instruments playing at once. It's "Detroit" and "Chicago" all rolled up into one. And for the first time, I begin to seriously doubt Stevens' songwriting chops. Sure, his artistic output is outstanding…if you go by the number of albums he's produced. But if this—a song about snowbirds and Jesus and how pretty the winter looks on you—is all we have to look forward to, then I'd say Rhode Island and Oregon might want to pass on that next EP. (I hear their state birds are pussies anyway.)

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Yet salvation arrives. Fleeting, but it arrives in main set closer "Chicago." Arguably Stevens' finest work to date, "Chicago" shows off what Sufjan does best, taking a song about big cities and bigger choruses and honing in on those minute and heart-wrenching details about the common man. When the music swells unbearably and then disappears suddenly a few minutes through, leaving only Stevens to sing that devastating couplet, "If I was crying in the van with my friend/It was for freedom from myself and from the land," you'd be hard-pressed to deny the man's talent. And when he follows that up with "I've made a lot of mistakes/I've made a lot of mistakes" (with My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden harmonizing just perfectly), the words become a mantra for every one of us in the audience. It's transcendent. This one moment is worth a thousand songs about Moses birds in flight. And this is what we came for. This is why we still believe the hype.

 

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