Live photos/review: Sufjan Stevens at Beacon Theatre
Tue Nov 16 2010
Photos: Matt Karp
It's easy to forget how very funny a performer Sufjan Stevens is. Partly it's that much of Stevens's recorded output up till now has erred on the quiet, melancholy side. And partly, truth be told, it seems astonishing—even a little unfair—that someone can be an exceptional musician and composer, a gifted lyricist, dreamboat handsome, and laugh-out-loud funny.
Stevens's live shows have always been playgrounds for whimsy (musicians wearing butterfly wings, etc.) and humor (remember the cheerleaders on the Illinoise tour), but last night's Beacon gig—the final show on the current tour—was an all-out joy, featuring robotic dance routines, a balloon flurry, projections and costumes from outer space. "I'm your entertainment for the evening," Stevens announced at the beginning of the show. And how...
Click past the jump for the full review and video
If you've listened to his new album, The Age of Adz, you're already aware that there's been a significant shift in Stevens's sound and worldview. His first proper album in five years, Adz is a response to heartbreak (he sings of "a broken heart that you stabbed for an hour") and physical meltdown (the singer talks about the latter at length in this New York Times interview.) Accordingly, it's a crazy-sounding, deeply affecting record, a glorious mangle of retro-futurist beats and knee-buckling orchestral arrangements (check our full review here).
The record was also inspired by the outsider artist Royal Robertson, whose work Stevens discussed at length last night. Robertson's wild, mystical sci-fi paintings became dramatic animations projected on a huge screen behind the band, while the musicians themselves were dressed in raggle-taggle space wear: tinfoil capes, fluorescent stripes and so on. Backed up by three singing lady-dancers, Stevens busted out some impressive robotic moves, gyrating his way through a number of onstage costume changes. This was a show—Stevens's own space odyssey, thoroughly thought-out and devised to delight.
Props, too, to the set designer (probably Stevens): When the slow-burning "Vesuvius" hit its volcanic climax, projected flames licked the stage on a mesh screen, the musicians dappled in orange and red light. The real breath-taker, though, is still the beauty of the songs. Stevens came to the front of the stage for a handful of stripped-down numbers, and his voice is shockingly pretty live; listen to new song "Futile Devices" for a full-on shiver.
The show's chief delight was Stevens's gleeful physicality; he said the record is about sensation, "sound-writing," rather than song-writing; accordingly the music and the performance felt like a release, like Stevens is plain ol' happy to be alive. Chatting between songs, he said he's always been into physics, trigonometry and algebra, the equilibrium of the universe. "That may sound incredibly elementary-school bookish," he said, "but that's kind of where I'm at right now"—this, while wearing crinkly plastic trousers and fastening a homemade headband around his head.
For the epic "Impossible Soul," a space pyramid floated down onstage, and Stevens donned a golden, pharaoh-style headdress; as the song reached its vocoder freak out, he pulled some awesomely disgusting neon shorts over his trousers and galumphed around the stage as the audience leapt to its feet. The encore, after a two-hour show, was Stevens's Little Miss Sunshine hit, "Chicago"; its teary excitement was amped up by huge balloons tumbling from the ceiling at the Beacon. Some fans looked a little perplexed by the balloon-popping mayhem, maybe because it's assumed that the answer to "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?" is rarely "they cut loose and have a Xanadu-style dance party." Thank goodness for Stevens, who demonstrated a glorious alternative.