Sufjan Stevens’s BQE @ BAM, Brooklyn 11/2-11/3/07

We spent a couple nights this weekend with Sufjan Stevens and The BQE. It’d be easy enough to pull out classical/sound theory, a double dose of Koyaanisqatsi, or a laundry list of loopholes, but we’ve always heard Glass in his pop songs, weren’t expecting perfection, and don’t see the point — largely because there was something really great happening at those Friday and Saturday’s shows. Suf, his ambition, emotion, and scruffy t-shirted orchestra gently (sometimes loudly) reminded us what it’s like to put down the critical guard for a second or three and let something work its, well, magic (with that winter chill in the air, it was like the Nutcracker for folks who hate the Nutcracker … or something). No denying the information overload when all the hula hoops spun in conjunction with the three-screen 8 and 16-mm projections and the orchestra’s shaded movements (had to close the eyes a second), but all said, twas a grand happening.

[all photos by Metrolens]

The night started out with projections on the top 1/3 of a screen that covered the entire stage, the orchestra shadowed in the background. Eventually the screen rose so that the projections — footage of buildings, hardware stores, people, a blow-up gorilla, the highway during the day and night, hula hoops — competed with a clear shot of the conductor, Sufjan at his piano, and the rest of the players (orchestra to the left, band folks — including Casey Foubert and Shara Wourden — to the right). Eventually, as the piece darkened, and nighttime hit the BQE, the screen dropped again and out came five real-life hoop spinners, which was sorta stressful: You knew it was only a matter of time before someone dropped one (and they did, here and there). But it also added some sexiness, which isn’t something we’re used to seeing in conjunction with Stevens’s work (every time the screen showed a close-up of a female’s hips spinning, this dude in the row behind us moaned audibly. Seriously.).

The music? Kinda hard to concentrate on it with everything else going down, but it’s what you’d imagine Sufjan would sound like if he expanded the orchestral moments of his tunes into a 30-minute instrumental swell and whisper. As a friend pointed it out, it had that Godspeed effect — no matter what got projected on the screen, it immediately felt weighty, dramatic, important, and pretty. Sufjan should release The BQE soundtrack as some sort of inspirational disc for runners (a la LCD or Aesop).

During the intermission it was fun hearing the old snobby dudes behind us (one of the moaners?) being pretty sure that “there are two distinct sorts of people who came here — those who wanted to see the first part and those who wanted to see the section.” Nah, you missed the point you curmudgeons … the beauty of Sufjan is that he’s able to meld both strands, so that kids who normally wouldn’t care (or vice versa) find themselves caring very much indeed. Also spotted David Byrne to the left. His hair looks really good.

For the second act, we watched “Sufjan Plays The Hits” (as it was listed in the program, though he referred to the bill a few times as “Songs Of Civic Pride”). Now the projections took up the entire background and instead of the film footage, looked more like digital renderings minus some old Illinoise cheerleader footage during “Jacksonville” (this admittedly seemed kinda rehashed, boring). The highlight was a gorgeous “John Wayne Gacy,” though he kept out a couple lines (the kissing) and said, after some of the lyrics creeped him out, that he felt he’d moved beyond the emotion he had while writing the song, and figured he should retire it. Some folks booed a little. Others clapped. Cool he’s no longer feeling like Gacy, but a bummer that tune’s gone … He was also great on “Detroit” (big props to his birthplace beforehand), “Casimir Pulaski Day,” and the grand finale “Chicago,” which he prefaced with a joke about making good on his promise to bring the hits.

What’s always made Sufjan interesting is his mix of good luck, eccentricity, and flat out ability. So, as always, dug the quirks — the too-tight pants, the wings, the awkward stories. Suf’s brother Marzuki had run in the Olympic Trials that morning, so “Go Marzuki!” signs rested against monitors and Sufjan made sure to stop and dedicate “Majesty Snowbird” to him (and all the runners in the next day’s NYC marathon) — “Don’t stop, don’t break / You can delight because you have a place / Quiet room, I need you now.” Or when he read a long and not-that-great, but charming story about toilet paper dolls to introduce “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” But if you went on a different night, you got a different story…

Friday night Suf mentioned he improvised his banter the night before and didn’t feel that went very well. So, he typed up his “Hits” banter instead. He had a pile of white papers, would read the title of each short story (usually corresponding to the next song’s title: “‘The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!,’ by Sufjan Stevens”), and then would regale the crowd. Didn’t see those papers on Saturday, but for Friday, lots of short, declarative sentences, read in the same voice a grade schooler would when delivering a book report to the class (he later joked about that fact; the “by Sufjan Stevens” part would crack up him — and then, the rest of us — greatly).

The book reports usually tied into an automotive theme, bringing it all back to the BQE in a way. For Friday night, “Predatory Wasps” was a story about how he and his brother used to run around the neighborhood and bash up old cars, one day taking their sticks to a junked up four-door they later learned to be their father’s (grandfather’s?). That was funny. Pretty sure it was that car that had a muffler which housed a bee hive. Sufjan smashed the muffler. All the bees attacked him. His brother laughed a lot. Sufjan got stung a lot. One bee stung him right in the middle of his forehead (“the third eye, the chakra”). It swelled up and looked like an apple. Everybody at school laughed and called him ‘apple boy.’ Also, the next day was class pictures.

See, no toilet paper dolls.

On Friday and Saturday, his story about “The Majesty Snowbird” dealt with his interest in “perpetual motion” and opened with a line like “I’ve been thinking a lot about birds lately,” before bringing up cars, saying we look at cars as representing a sort of freedom, an ability to travel and explore distances — but that ain’t got shit on the winged ones (not a direct quote). He spoke of birds with envy and admiration (always using the royal We, as if we all felt exactly as he did, which sort of fit the juvenile and eyes-wide-open vibe of all the banter). He said something about the limitations of cars’ movements, but how birds could traverse areas in many dimensions, about how theirs was ‘complete freedom in volume’ (or something). He then said he didn’t even know what that meant. (“Moving on…”)

As far as endings, after The BQE segment, he did a hula-hooping curtain call both nights. He didn’t get a full-on standing ovation on Friday (his face sorta dropped as he walked out), but people definitely raised their hands in the air on Saturday (and he dropped his hula by mistake as the curtain fell). On Saturday, it was clear folks dug The BQE, by and large, but it was his bread and butter, those lovely hits, that really brought down the house. This time, he had no hula hoop to drop.

But hey look at these kids go: