If it had been anyone other than Sufjan Stevens who tried to pull off the schtick that he did Tuesday night, they probably would have been railroaded out of the Sokol Underground and deposited on the other side of the state border faster than you can say “upper peninsula.” We’re talking matching cheerleading outfits, dance routines, cheers and sing-alongs (and snap-alongs!), flag-waving, audience participation, and freaking spirit fingers. And yet the crowd ate it up entirely.
Case in point: Sufjan and his merry Illinoisemakers — get over the pun, people! — kicked off their set with the “50 States Medley,” a song that — you guessed it — treks through every state in the union. It’s full of clever wordplay, and of course, a good way to get on the good side of the crowd. But it’s not supposed to work with cynical indie types, right?! But sure enough, the whole crowd cheered when Nebraska was mentioned. For a brief second, I thought I was at Memorial Stadium amidst a sea of Husker red, not a smoke-filled hall full of indie-hipster kids. What gives?
To be quite honest, I really didn’t know what to expect going into the show. I’ve literally been waiting years to see the man in concert. And given how much of a spiritual impact his music has had on my life — I still remember breaking down in my car the first time I finally caught the meaning behind “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” — I was half-expecting to have a huge, emotional experience that would leave me sobbing like a child halfway through the set. Something, perhaps, akin to what happens every time I saw Pedro The Lion perform “Secret of the Easy Yoke.” But instead, I get the exact opposite — cheerleaders, audience participation, and those silly spirit fingers.
In all honesty, I don’t think I would’ve had it any other way.
Sure, it was corny as anything, pretentious, and silly beyond reason. But it felt so refreshing to see a band so absolutely devoid of irony and hipster chic, to see them perform and actually have enough sense and gravitas to not take themselves so damned seriously. And I think that, for a lot of people (myself included), that was a breath of fresh air. If there had been even the slightest trace of irony in the Illinoisemakers’ performance, the crowd would have picked up on it, and I doubt Sufjan and Co. would have made it out with their pom-poms intact.
But it’s not just the artist who potentially sacrifices their dignity. It also requires some bravery on the listener’s part. You have to be willing to let go of your inhibitions as well, to invest in the spectacle, as silly as it might seem. And in Sufjan’s case, such an investment is handsomely rewarded because that “silliness” is backed by some of the finest songwriting you’re likely to hear all year.
Naturally, it’s impossible to recreate all of the intricacies of Sufjan’s studio albums, but he certainly gives it his best shot. With eight folks backing him up on guitar, drums, shakers, trumpets, trombones, banjos, glockenspiels, triangles, vibes, and Lord knows what else, the only thing missing from Sufjan’s live sound were the strings and Steve Reich-isms. Not that the music really suffered much. It still sounded layered, lush, and eccentric live, with a few surprises along the way.
“They Are Night Zombies!!“ ‘s disco funk was given a Stevie Wonder makeover as Sufjan demonstrated his mad ivory skills on the Rhodes piano (with appropriate backup provided by his own troupe of Solid Gold dancers). “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is out to Get Us!” culminated in a massive rumbling drone built on Jeff Shoop’s (Ester Drang) bass, which left Sokol buzzing like, well, a giant wasp’s nest. And for an encore, Sufjan and the gang did a low and slow version of “Chicago” that traded in the album’s elaborate arrangements for delicate acoustic guitars and Sufjan’s haunting falsetto.
And though the night wasn’t quite the overwhelming emotional experience that I had perhaps prepared myself for, Sufjan did perform the one-two punch of “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” songs that still carried some heaviness despite the night’s pep rally mood. Heck, I don’t know if I can envision a situation where “Casimir Pulaski Day” won’t bring a tear to my eye, or at least a catch in my throat, with lyrics like “Oh the glory that the Lord has made/And the complications when I see His face.” No amount of mere spirit fingers can undermine the oomph packed into those simple lines.
I was very excited to see Liz Janes opening (she also did double duty as one of the Illinoisemakers). Although her first album didn’t do much for me, 2004’s Poison & Snakes turned out to be a real rough-hewn gem. I suppose my only complaint is that I wish she would’ve been backed by a larger band — her only accompaniment was another Illinoisemaker — so I could have heard more atmospheric pieces like “Desert.” (And I would like to have heard some of her collaborations with improv hip-hop outfit Create(!).)
But the simpler set-up worked just fine. Janes’ music has a rough, unpolished, old-timey quality to it that works well in a stripped down form, and her voice has a fiery, bluesy tone that can be quite overwhelming (think Paula Frazer by way of Kat Jones). My ears were left ringing several times after she decided to belt it out and let her voice peel the paint from the walls.