The Majestic Songbird
by Scott Bolohan
Playing in front of a sold out Riviera Theater on Sept. 26, Illinois’ favorite indie rocker Sufjan Stevens could have been expected to have butterflies. In fact, he had exactly 14.
Sufjan, (or as he said he should be known as, The Majestic Songbird) wore a giant pair of bird wings, as his group of 14 musicians, the Magical Chinese Butterfly Brigade, wore glowing butterfly wings and were dressed as Boy Scouts. The stage featured silver streamers and a video board that played images connected with the songs. The full effect of the stage with the musicians in their wings, made it look like an elementary school play. Sufjan was accompanied by a string and horn section, unlike on the previous tour which left some songs feeling sparse and empty. Throughout the 110-minute set, the strings and horns would make themselves known. In the best cases, like the first song played, "Sister," the strings were showcased during the introduction, creating a powerful and epic sound. On other songs like "The Lord God Bird," the strings created a lush and dreamy environment perfect for Sufjan’s delicate voice.
The set was largely split in half, between songs off of "Illinois" and "Seven Swans." Oddly, his most recent release, "The Avalanche," was completely ignored and only the complicated "Detroit" from his "Michigan" album was played, a song which didn’t translate very well live. Some of the quieter songs were overpowered by the string and horn additions and left the soft spoken Stevens lost in the noise.
The show was opened by Sufjan’s label-mate, My Brightest Diamond, who was accompanied by a smaller section of strings. Her haunting songs made her sound like a less angry Fiona Apple with a guitar. After her well-received set, she joined Sufjan as a back-up singer and multi-instrumentalist.
Following "Sister," the show settled into a lull. The "Seven Swans" songs did not work as well in a large venue, and the crowd did not really get into them. In many instances, particularly on "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands," Sufjan’s banjo was drowned out by the rest of the music, leaving a loud mess of what was once a quiet and moving song.
After the low point of a long, Wilco-esque noise freak-out at the end of "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us," Sufjan took the stage alone for a chilling version of "John Wayne Gacy" which ironically picked the show back up. The end of the set was highlighted by a jazzier version of "Casmir Pulaski Day," which Sufjan introduced as a song about the "best Polish man ever to live" and an uplifting performance of "Jacksonville." "Chicago" was the final song played before the encore, and was the pinnacle of the show. It was much more energized than on the record, and even the musicians were jumping around while the crowd gleefully shouted the lyrics. The encore featured the band without wings as they played, "They Are Night Zombies!!" with a cool feature on the video screen that coordinated the chorus with the lyrics on the screen so that everyone could sing along. The show ended with a solid version of "That Dress Looks Nice On You."
Stevens never appeared comfortable in front of the crowd, often only thanking everyone with a nervous laugh after songs. Although his bashfulness seemed to fit his vulnerable lyrics. In one of his few interactions with the crowd, he told a long and awkward, although funny, story about being chased by a monster bug at camp as a kid before playing "The Predatory Wasp." Stevens seemed to take note of every little detail in the show, from the dress of all of the musicians to the set up of the instruments, as he came out between acts to personally set the stage as he wanted. Perhaps Sufjan realizes that he is not the most engaging personality on stage, and tries to make up for it in entertainment value with the playful costumes and videos.
Although there were moments when the music did not click, for the most part it was a dazzling array of sound, and quite entertaining. Plus, it is probably the only acceptable time to yell "John Wayne Gacy rocks!"
This appeared in the September 29, 2006 edition of The DePaulia.