Sufjan Stevens, Bowery Ballroom, NYC- 8/19
NYC ROLL-TOP: Getting Niminy-Piminy with Sufjan Stevens
"I guess this is what people mean when they say 'twee,' huh?" my friend asked during Half-Handed Cloud's set opening for art-folk wunderkind Sufjan Stevens at the Bowery Ballroom. It probably was. John Ringhofer's songs were short, weird, cute, and Christian. Give or take the length, Stevens were, too. With the Danielson Famile — set to open on the closing night of Stevens' wickedly sold-out five-night stand at the Bowery — the three acts are players in the new Christian avant-garde. But they're not the scary kind of Christian (or, at least the indie kids don't think so). That's where the "twee" part comes in. My friend tugged my shoulder and pointed at his Blackberry, which displayed a list of synonyms for "twee." Among them, "niminy-piminy."
Stevens' cocktail is a little different, but he's similarly niminy-piminy. With Illinoise, the second album in his proposed 50 states project, Stevens — like Colin Meloy of The Decemberists — is (re)carving a niche of rock that verges on literal musical theater. "Illinoise Makers Spirit Week," read the homemade letters hanging from the back of the stage, and one couldn’t help but appreciate the amount of information crammed into the stage prop: a clever declaration of concept for the night, a plug for Stevens’ latest platter, and a reference to the Dude upstairs. And so Stevens and crew entered, the man himself in American flag jester drag, a gang of hipster cheerleaders behind him (all in matching "I" get-ups) and bearing pom-poms.
And they did a cheerleading routine in the most uncheerleaderly time signature of 5, before launching into "COME ON! FEEL THE ILLINOISE!" a two-part suite whose tight brass/xylophone arrangements and factoid-crammed lyrics acted as an overture for the evening. Stevens' nine-piece ensemble — which also included guitars, keyboards, baby grand piano, occasionally Stevens' banjo, and a backing singer's Jesus-fish-shaped tambourine — was tonally rich, if still a little stiff. But they were nothing less than ambitious throughout, delivering music that was utterly dramatic.
There is little gospel in Stevens' music. Or, at least, one rarely feels preached to. Part of the attraction is that Stevens' Christianity is the kind whose needle teeters. But, like a compass — or a sitcom — it will always even itself out (except that one time when it might not…) Still, Stevens has found a convincing way to convey his confusion (and passion) to secular ears. The crowd veritably ate from his hand, reverently silent during the achingly beautiful "Casimir Pulaski Day," a love song to a friend dying of cancer. "All the glory that the Lord has made, and the complications you could do without, when I kissed you on the mouth," Stevens sang, God being just as real in the world of the song as "the morning, through the window shade, when the light pressed up against your shoulder blade."
Stevens sang of slavery ("JACKSONVILLE"), serial killing clowns ("JOHN WAYNE GACY, JR."), and Superman ("The Man of METROPOLIS Steals Our Hearts"). The performance was peppered with specially composed cheerleading routines. Introducing the latter song, the assembled rhymed "Balki Bartokomous" with "Metropolis." Several songs, including the live debut of "DECATUR, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!" were rusty. Still, climaxing with the simply titled "CHICAGO!" the group had clearly found its map of Stevens' Illinois, but was yet to get entirely comfortable on its terrain. It was the first night of five, however, and the beginning of what will likely be a long year of touring for Stevens and his Asthmatic Kitty crew. They play Urbana on September 15th, and Chicago on the 16th and 17th. They should have it read by then.
Jesse Jarnow blogs when he can at Wunderkammern27.com