I’ve been a fan of Sufjan Stevens since I first heard his music through a close friend last year. I will admit, I’m one of those fans who barely knows the names of any songs and simply listens, sings along, and enjoys. Judge the basis of my opinion if you will, but my dear readers, when I say Sufjan’s show was worth shelling out the $35, I mean it was worth much more. Time, effort, and a whole lot of pure talent were put into his show that ran over two hours. Pleasing a sold-out crowd at Royal Oak Music Theatre on October 14 would be an understatement.
For those of you who haven’t heard of him, Sufjan Stevens is a Michigan native who’s been releasing albums since 2000 from his co-owned record label Asthmatic Kitty based in Holland, Mich. He’s most well known for his Fifty States Project in which he had set a goal to write an album for each of the 50 states. Michigan and Illinois were released in 2003 and 2005, respectively, but he has yet to produce another state-themed album. With nine albums under his belt, his much anticipated tenth album, The Age of Adz, was released only two days before the show in Royal Oak.
Stevens chose a set list of songs off his latest album and EP, All Delighted People. Some fans in the audience were disappointed not to hear some of their favorite old tunes. One fan even shouted the incredibly offensive, “A** h**, play old songs!” (I don’t care what you expected from a show, you do not shout that at an artist), but Stevens made up for what he refused to play by smoothly transitioning himself into a new, undefined genre. Though he did “cleanse the pallet,” as he put it, with a few folk songs in between, Stevens can no longer be described as simply that. Possibly electric-infused folk with a hint of jazz and delightful melodies that make you want to move your body to the music, but does that pass as a definitive genre? Transcendental, experimental, and slightly existential at times, Stevens’s new music and lyrics took the audience on a journey they were probably not expecting.
The amazing part of the show was that the audience was never bored. Usually when you see a band play songs you don’t know well, or even at all, you have trouble getting into the show because you can barely sing along. Stevens’s songs went peacefully together, one after the other. His longest song, which he described as a “mini-series on love,” was close to 20 minutes long. It sounds like it would be terrible and dragged out, but just when you start to feel yourself get bored, the band kicks in with incredible bass and percussion that pulls you back in. Even when things get a little weird, like when a giant diamond descended from the ceiling behind Stevens and he uncharacteristically danced around wearing white-rimmed sunglasses, he always brought it back to Earth with his tenacity and musical talent. If you’ve ever wondered if Stevens is one of the those artists who sounds the same on his album as he does live, I’m here to tell you he is. His voice did not falter once throughout the set.
I can only best describe Stevens’s show as a live music video, but on a different level. Behind Stevens and his nine-piece band, including two backup singers/dancers dressed in metallic dresses and leggings, was a giant white curtain stretching from floor to ceiling. For each song, a delicately edited video was displayed on the curtain to fit perfectly with the music played. Some edits were quick and fascinating, and others displayed melodic images that stretched across the screen to mesmerize the crowd. The dynamics of the show were elaborate, yet perfectly in sync at the same time. If you weren’t staring at the images and colors in front of you, you were watching as the band passionately played their instruments and Stevens fervently performed his music without fault. You were also probably watching the two girls dancing in the back who, adorably, were completely off beat with each other, but were clearly having a fantastic time grooving along. You might have even noticed the Bee Gee look-a-like playing trombone in the back, and he was totally diggin’ it, too.
Could Stevens have possibly gone an entire show without playing anyone’s favorites? It’s possible, but not probable. Before ending his set, Stevens thanked the crowd by saying, “It’s obviously been a pleasure to share this beautiful mess with you.” He then finished his set with the always loved, “Chicago.” With the first few chords of the song, the entire venue erupted with an enormous cheer of approval, and everyone sang along. He ended the show with a 10 minute encore of older songs, which hopefully appeased the few unruly fans.
Auto-tune, spaceships, and graphic arts: All things that have never been associated with Sufjan Stevens until now. It sounds like he’s gone off the deep end, but I was thoroughly impressed with his subtle messages of love and perseverance through a spectacular performance. Even if you miss his banjo, you can’t deny his talent. His songwriting abilities have not gone amiss. The man knows how to rock out a show and express his gratitude for his fans. Worship of artist and audience was dispersed equally that night in Royal Oak.
Mr. Stevens, my heart is forever yours.