Opening the Thursday-night show among the ornaments and frescos of the historic Orpheum Theatre was DM Stith, who released his first album Heavy Ghost on Asthmatic Kitty in 2009, and who later on in the night played upright piano in Sufjan’s orchestra.
Using only an acoustic guitar and a few pedals—including the all-important looping pedal—Stith rocked back and forth in his chair crooning and layering plaintive vocals over improvised mic-tapping percussion and heavy strumming to create a surprisingly commanding cloud of sound. The sight of him playing under single spotlight in the darkened theater made it all the more affecting.
Watching him perform reminded me of Shara Worden (aka the force behind My Brightest Diamond) and Annie Clark (St. Vincent), who’ve both toured with Stevens and gone on to launch successful solo careers. Given access to a band like Stevens’ or Worden’s, I’m sure Stith could do great things headlining his own tour.
After a short half-hour of set up, during which a crew of camera men prepped for filming (tour DVD?), the Age of Adz band trickled onto the stage. Horn players, pianists, guitarists and back up singers preceded Sufjan as he quietly strode in and counted off the first song.
As “Seven Swans” came into focus, the dimness of the auditorium was lit quietly by star formations that curved and twisted into living constellations on the large, trapezoidal screen behind the band. On a semi-transparent screen in front of the band, projections of snow slowly brightened to accompany the wandering stars behind. By the song’s first crescendo, the band was fully enveloped in lights and sound.
Illuminated visuals, costume changes and synchronized dancing continued throughout the night, helping transport the audience from the inside of a fiery volcano for “Vesuvius,” to a futuristic space landscape filled with white and purple spirograph formations for what Stevens called his “slow jam” (“I Walked”). All of this, interspersed with acoustic songs like “Enchanting Ghost,” made for a show that was varied, well paced and fresh for a full two and a half hours.
The only part that I can honestly say dragged a bit was the latter half of the 30-minute “Impossible Soul” jam. (I liked the auto-tune part, but didn’t care much for the hip-hop/vocoder part.)
The simple green, orange and pink highlighter-like stripes the band wore were a lot of fun. Small touches like these added to the sensory medley, and helped articulate the musician’s skeletal movements while they danced to songs like “Get Real Get Right”—a feel good “reality check” dedicated to artist Royal Robertson, who’s art was animated on the trapezoidal screen throughout the night.
Leading into the song, Stevens set aside a few moments from the musical marathon to formally introduce the audience to this unanticipated spirit guide. With the aid of a small slide show (yes, you read that right), he narrated the tale of his recent identity crisis, wherein soon after releasing The Avalanche he rejected traditional instruments and journeyed into electronic music, where he said he nearly got lost among sonic landscapes.
During this phase, a friend introduced him to Royal Robertson’s art and his unique story: the story of a gifted painter who was overwhelmed by mental illness in his later years, whose life came to an end in the grips of artistic madness. Studying the artist’s work, Sufjan said he was both inspired by and heedful of the story and the lesson it offered. He credited and thanked Robertson for helping him find his way back to an artistic center, where electronic music would eventually come to harmonize with instruments like his trusty banjo for The Age of Adz.
The set as a whole was again made all the better by stories and commentaries like these.
Like the best truly performance-minded artists, Stevens is well aware of how to present and contextualize his music, as well as the identity that gave rise to it. Like many of the great musical stylists, from Bowie to Byrne, Sufjan has a talent for creating sequence and narrative through song, story and show, which allows him to successfully harmonize and manifest his multiple personalities on a single stage in a single set.
Somewhere near the beginning of the show he said, “I know this is all a little mixed up,” pointing around the stage. Laughing with the audience, he declared, “It’s a little orchestral, a little folk, a little rock, sort of 80s and sort of in the future…but it’s all me. Don’t worry though, I’m in therapy and I’m working it out.”
Though the setlist was mostly filled with new material, the crowd was more than happy to stand for the uplifting finale—which was of course “Chicago,” accompanied by a couple hundred balloons.
The encore was also filled with satisfying Illinoise classics. “Concerning the UFO Sighting…,” “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” closed the show. I think many audience members were surprised by the bold choice of final finale, but, despite being one of Sufjan’s simplest songs, it still remains one of his most nuanced and powerful.