Sufjan Stevens brings a sonic force to Vancouver

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      At the Orpheum Theatre on Thursday, October 28

      If there’s one thing you can’t say about Sufjan Stevens, it’s that he lacks confidence in his material. In fact, the Brooklyn-based critical darling is apparently so certain that his audience is enamoured of his latest album, the not entirely user-friendly The Age of Adz, that the set list for his current tour consists almost entirely of songs from it. It’s a good thing, then, that the new songs come across better live than they do on the record, and that Stevens has surrounded himself with a killer band to help him deliver them.

      He started off, though, with a brief trip to the past, opening with the title track from his 2004 release Seven Swans. This began just as spare as the recorded version, with Stevens accompanying his hushed singing with a five-string banjo. It was quiet and lovely, but that was before the full band—complete with two drummers and a trio of trombonists—came in and showed a packed Orpheum just how much sonic force an 11-member ensemble can wield.

      After that it was on to the new stuff—a whole mess of new stuff. The Age of Adz has earned its share of glowing reviews, but it’s an odd artefact. Inspired as much by the truly bizarre oeuvre of the late American outsider artist (and schizophrenic) Royal Robertson as by Stevens’s own mysterious viral ailments, the album thrums with end-of-the-world melodrama and a fair amount of fretful navel-gazing. (As Stevens told his Vancouver audience, “The general theme is whining and consternation.”)

      The Age of Adz also finds Stevens largely eschewing his indie-rock and baroque-pop leanings in favour of electronic noodling and Auto-Tune. It might be understating things to say it’s a little hard to get into, which made for some weird moments when the Michigan-born singer-songwriter and his band presented it on-stage. “Age of Adz”, for instance, came across as some kind of bombastic space gospel, complete with a pair of backing vocalists whose shiny silver tights and choreographed steps suggested they could do pretty well headlining a cabaret on Rigel IV. As animated versions of Robertson’s flying-saucer paintings whirled on a screen behind him, Stevens sang “When I die I’ll rot/But when I live I’ll give it all I’ve got.” Afterwards, he told the crowd “That’s my love song to the apocalypse.”

      That description could just as easily have been applied to “Get Real Get Right”, which featured more cosmic testifying about gettin’ in the Lord’s good books before the end times, and also more UFOs.

      Toward the end of the set, Stevens and company played a little ditty called “Impossible Soul”, a number that falls somewhere between synthesized prog rock and the score of Blade Runner as remixed by Lil Wayne. It’s the sort of thing that goes on for so long—we’re talking 25 minutes—that you start to think you’re hallucinating parts of it. Suddenly, though, the song switched gears as the band donned novelty-shop accessories. Stevens paired a Michael Jackson glove with a neon-green visor and, waving a multicoloured light stick, started busting circa-’89 MTV dance moves like a lost member of New Kids on the Block. As the two backup singers made their way to the front of the stage and belted out “Boy, we can do much more together/It’s not so impossible”, the hitherto orderly crowd took it as an invitation to dance and got to its feet, where it remained for the rest of the concert.

      That consisted of three songs from Stevens’s best-known and biggest-selling album, Illinois, including a rousing, set-closing rendition of “Chicago”, and an encore of “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and “Jacksonville”. Wise move. If there’s one thing you can’t say about Sufjan Stevens, it’s that he doesn’t know when to give the people what they want.

      Sufjan Stevens performs "Chicago" in Vancouver on October 28, 2010.



      ryan s

      Oct 29, 2010 at 11:45am

      incredible show, totally blew me away...up there with Radiohead in my books. Sufjan was unbelievable, Jacksonville was sooooo good. Oh and a HUGE kudos to a great crowd in Vancouver, no idiots yelling out stupid stuff and perfectly quiet and respectful when Stevens was at his quietest.... beautiful night.

      Sarah T

      Oct 29, 2010 at 12:49pm

      I was totally blow away by how entertaining he was. I love when you can tell artists are having fun doing what they love. With Halloween but a few days away, the chicken head, the silver glove and neon-green visor was such a fun way to get the crowd involved. To to Sufjans efforts, it was a success. More so, to comment on the Straight article, I completely disagree with saying he lacked confidence.

      John Lucas

      Oct 29, 2010 at 1:10pm

      Sarah T: Perhaps you would like to read my opening sentence again: "If there’s one thing you can’t say about Sufjan Stevens, it’s that he lacks confidence in his material."

      See how I pointed out that you can't say he lacks confidence?

      Johnny B

      Oct 29, 2010 at 1:28pm

      Astonishing, overwhelming, exhilarating and exhausting.

      Nick K

      Oct 29, 2010 at 3:40pm

      Mind blowing. As much as I agree with John Lucas on his comments about the album not being easy to get into, I can't really imagine a set of old material mixed in with the new; they're too different. His set list made sense to me even if I didn't hear all my favorites.


      Oct 29, 2010 at 4:14pm

      honestly, I didn't enjoy the show as much as I had hoped. I've heard a lot of people say they thought it was mind blowing, but not for me.


      Oct 29, 2010 at 5:11pm

      That man has a huge pair of cajones to put on a show like that. It was amazing. Technical perfection in every respect from SS and band (except forgetting a lyric of one of his encore pieces, reminding us that he is human). Even for a serious fan, it was challenging at times, especially the never-ending song "Impossible Soul". I don't think I was the only one who thought he might have a riot on his hands if it went on much longer. One of the few performers I've seen who cares more about being true to the emotion of the music and recapturing the spirit of his inspiration onstage than he does about giving an audience what they want. Apparently, that's what most of us wanted, apologies to HV.


      Oct 29, 2010 at 9:24pm

      "Even for a serious fan, it was challenging at times, especially the never-ending song "Impossible Soul"."
      @ DL: are you kidding? that song was amazing. i'm a huge fan and it was no "work" at all. it was incredible that the band can play SO well for such a LONG SONG.

      TheActual Review10

      Oct 29, 2010 at 11:24pm

      I don't work all day to pay 50-80$ to Sufjan StevensROAD TEST new material for their entire show. Musicians were substandard, jams were overlong..too many average songs. He has taken his fans for granted here. After the show, I felt like punching Stevens in the face for wasting my time.


      Oct 29, 2010 at 11:37pm

      The only thing missing from this review was a video illustrating Sufjan's Halloween outfit and dance moves...

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