Monday, December 17, 2012

Sufjan Stevens at the Beachland Ballroom, 12/16/12

I'm fairly convinced that Sufjan Stevens is a genius.  I'm also convinced that he's a pretty weird guy, and that he's aware of this.  Last night, after stumbling over some lyrics early on in his new epic 12-minute holiday masterpiece "Christmas Unicorn," he wryly said, "Who wrote these lyrics, anyway?"  Oh yeah, and let's not forget that he was wearing an elaborate unicorn headdress festooned with balloons and feathers at the time.

There's just something about the guy.  I mean, who does these things?  How many indie folk musicians would bedeck themselves with sparkles and balloons and a unicorn horn during a show?  How many indie folk musicians would release 10 discs of Christmas music, one disc for each year, in two 5 disc sets, each packaged with all sorts of extras ranging from stickers to deep, thoughtful essays on the holiday season to temporary tattoos?  How many indie folk musicians would close an album (The Age of Adz) with a 25 minute pop song ("Impossible Soul")?  How many people, period, could even write a 25 minute pop song and make the whole thing absolutely brilliant?  And how many people could get a room full of mostly twenty-and-thirty-something indie music fans to boisterously sing along to a series of traditional Christmas carols?

I certainly had high expectations for Sufjan's concert at the Beachland, where I'd seen him twice previously.  Both were great shows, and I was excited to see him perform his holiday music, which I love.  That's something I never would have thought I'd say as recently as a few years ago.  I can't say that I ever had any particular fondness for Christmas music before I started listening to Sufjan's Songs For Christmas collection.  I fell in love with the first five disc release, both for the beautiful renditions of traditional carols and (especially) for some of the best original songs of Sufjan's career.  This year he came out with the second five disc set.  It's easily even more ambitious than the first, and I'm beginning to feel that it's just as great.  So Cara and I headed over to the venue a half hour before doors opened, hoping we'd be able to get a decent spot near the stage (last time we'd been near the back), and fortunately, the line was not yet too long when we got there.

I knew beforehand that the show was going to be quite a spectacle, but when I walked into the ballroom, my eyes instantly widened at what I saw.  The stage was all decked out in holiday cheer, and that was nice enough, but to the left of the stage...

There was a giant, colorful, game-show-style wheel stretching from floor to ceiling with the names of different Christmas carols festively decorating it.  One might have guessed that this wheel would be spun during the show to select the songs that would be used for the sing-a-long portion of the night, and one would have been right.  This was all tremendous fun.  There were even hymn booklets handed out at the entrance to ensure that everyone could sing along.  Here's the cover (make note of the instructions printed on it):

Perhaps ten or twelve carols were performed sing-along style, with Sufjan, his band and the audience all celebrating the holidays together.  This was divided into two segments of the main set, the rest of which was a stunning display of musicianship easily up to the standards of any "normal" Sufjan Stevens performance.  I'm truly amazed at the diversity of his catalog, from his early acoustically focused songs to his more electronic and experimental recent stuff.  His Christmas music covers the same range.  Sufjan's music can at times be catchy, rousing, or majestic, but at its best, I'd usually describe it as "heartachingly beautiful."  A prime example would be "For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti," a fan favorite from the Michigan album featuring Sufjan's amazing voice and banjo playing which was inserted as a brief, non-Christmas interlude in the middle of the main set.  Several of his holiday songs are just as chills-inducing.  My favorite is probably "Sister Winter," which was an absolute thrill to see performed live.  I also loved "Justice Delivers Its Death," a new song in which Sufjan seems to ponder the strange contradiction of a holiday meant to celebrate Christ's birth that is celebrated with rampant consumption and consumerism.

There were several short hymns which Sufjan and his band performed a cappella, filling the ballroom with angelic harmonies.  And at other points in the show, there were bubble and confetti machines, and inflatable Santas and unicorns and enormous bouncing balls thrown into the crowd.

And then there was Sufjan, dressed as the Christmas Unicorn, climbing up onto a speaker directly above where Cara and I were standing, during an astonishingly good song that goes from gentle, playful verses to an increasingly majestic chorus before transitioning into an irresistibly danceable cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."  It was truly a magical moment, and one that only Sufjan could pull off.  "Christmas Unicorn" closed out the main set perfectly.  After several minutes of unrelenting applause from an enraptured audience, Sufjan returned to the stage sans holiday attire for a perfect encore that filled me with nostalgia for more than one reason.

You see, the first concert I ever attended at the Beachland was Sufjan Stevens on September 13, 2005.  (I know the exact date because we have a poster from the show hanging in our apartment.  I didn't actually buy the poster at the show, but found it at a local shop years later.)  Not only was it my first concert at the Beachland, it was at that point in my life that going to concerts became a "thing" that I did.  In a sense, it was the beginning of a new era in my life.  At that show seven years ago, Sufjan was touring his breakthrough Illinois album, and last night's encore was quite Illinois-heavy, including "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," another one of those heartachingly beautiful songs on which Sufjan's voice and lyrics do things that no one else's can.  As I stood there, I couldn't help but think of being in the same room, hearing the same music more than seven years ago, and of all the ways my life had changed since then.  In a way, it was like things had come full circle.

After playing "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" Sufjan said he thought they had time for one more song.  I was silently hoping for one song in particular, and when he laid down the opening notes of "Chicago" on piano I was overjoyed.  "Chicago," after all, was the song Cara and I used for the recessional of our wedding, and now we were standing together, perhaps ten feet away from Sufjan Stevens himself, seeing the song performed live.  (Amazingly, earlier this year we also got to see a live performance of our wedding's first dance song, Bowerbirds' "Northern Lights.")  Talk about a perfect way to end the night!

During the show, some of the stage banter included joking about how the world was supposedly going to end in a few days.  And I thought to myself, if the world were going to end, this was a good concert to go out on!

I'm the Christmas Unicorn.  You're the Christmas Unicorn too.

No comments:

Post a Comment