Recently Sufjan revealed he’s “at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone, having spent many years imparting my songs to the public.” Later that day, high-quality video of three mind-bending new Sufjan Stevens tunes took over all the websites you read. Add those to the pending release of his BQE boxset, a collab with Clogs, and the news he’s made an instrumental album with his stepdad (and Asthmatic Kitty co-founder) Lowell Brams and the National’s Bryce Dessner. For a man with such a way with them, sometimes it’s hard to take Sufjan at his word.
That brings us to last night’s show at MHOW (the last time we saw him he was tie-dyed; this time, just tie-d), the third of four NYC nights and his first at the Music Hall, a room he would say “really freaks me out, it’s like Bowery Ballroom on steroids.” It wasn’t the only time he confessed to be being freaked out, either; after opening with full band for the epic and expansive new torch song “Impossible Souls,” Sufjan sidled up to the upright piano for a solo “Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and stopped it three lines in, unable to read his lyric sheets in the dim, scene-setting blue stage lighting. “I haven’t sung this song in like a year-and-a-half,” he said, offering a money back guarantee and later joking “the darkness freaks me out; I know we’re killing the mood, but high production is so passé now. It’s all about keeping it real.” It was an abrupt hiccup in a night that was surprisingly full of them:
Stevens lost his way lyrically again during “Detroit, Lift Your Weary Head! (Rebuild!)” (“a song about my hometown Motown, so please with reverence listen very carefully”) and “Size Too Small,” stopped “All Delighted People” after a few bars to retune a guitar, dropping a music stand with lyrics, clutched his throat with a smile suggesting some wear, etc. In lesser hands these nervous tics could sink a show, but of course these aren’t lesser hands. Sufjan’s always had an endearing self-awareness and dry self-deprecation, and his general unflappability mixed with last night’s soaring moments when things clicked (most every other moment) made the brief derailments opportunities to enjoy his charm rather than criticize.
The older songs were lovingly received if admittedly rusty (with the exception of the Seven Swans material, which were rapturously received and not at all rusty, not surprising after the hours his band likely spent preparing for that ATP album recreation). But as blog-readers know, these shows aren’t really about the old songs. Sufjan’s band, which last night featured Bryce Dessner, is a four-horned and rhythmically dynamic beast, calibrated to blow up the new tunes’ grooving, stretched then deconstructed Bitches brew. They tend to mix tightly scripted horn arrangements and billowing psychedelic detours, often in the same song, occasionally in the same section. Typically memorable Sufjan melodies set in, get jacked by trilling trumpet squall and Stevens’s pitch-shifting pedals and electric guitar chatter, subside into endless reprises; “All Delighted People” works references to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound Of Silence” into a song bursting with anything but. The effect is one thing streaming out of your computer screen and something else entirely live. But since you’re on a computer, watch these videos. A sedate “Size Too Small” ended the night’s two-song encore and seemingly the show, but after six minutes of crowd cheers through house lights and PA music, Sufjan and band came out for a true encore of “Too Much Love.” If you want to know how much the house loved last night, that is how much.
Opening the night were Cryptacize, whose charming and seemingly theater-trained Nedelle Torrisi joined the revamped Stevens band later in the night. Their “Cosmic Sing-a-long” repeatedly insists you sing-a-long, ironic because their music doesn’t make that easy. Their songs recall a sweetly nostalgic retro-pop but delight in their own subversive cleverness, setting up familiar progressions only to twist them mid-course with unexpected beat displacements and Chris Cohen’s oddball chord inversions. Singing a long would be great, but the surprises are even better.
Enjoy these photos by Kyle Dean Reinford of Sufjan, Cryptacize, and MC Sheila Saputo (aka Rosie Thomas), and here are Sufjan and Cryptacize’s setlists:
01 “Impossible Souls”*
02 ?”Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”
03 “Detroit, Lift Your Weary Head! (Rebuild!)”
04 ?”Casimir Pulaski Day”
05 ?”All Delighted People”
06 “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”?
07 “To Be Alone With You”?
08 “The Age Of Adz”?
09 “Barn Owl, Night Killer”
10 ?”All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands”
11 ?”Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”
13 “The Dress Looks Nice on You”?
14 “Size Too Small”
15 “Too Much Love”*
01 “One Block Wonder
02 “New Spell
03 “Transcendental Meditation (Beach Boys cover)
04 “Blue Tears
06 “What You Can’t See Is
08 “Cosmic Sing-a-long”
10 “Say You Will”
11 “Tail & Mane”