Sufjan Stevens in Portland
The Arlene Schnitzer is a gorgeous, concert hall, in all of its stunning high-brow Italian Rococo Revival glory and home to the Oregon Symphony. So what in the world was a crowd of thousands of hipsters, pseudo-intellectuals, and all around popists doing here on a friday night? Well, to see indie "it" boy Sufjan Stevens of course. Sufjan entered the stage and was fully in character, wearing album-themed clothes including shiny silver pants and boasting some really awkward robotic dance moves. Later on in the night, Stevens would call his musical act "probably the most inappropriate thing to happen in this beautiful concert space". However, as humble and self-aware as he may be, the truth is that Sufjan likes to refer to his music as "high art meets low art", and has been involved in genre-bending of the most successful kind for years now.
In the last five years, Sufjan has enjoyed the never-ending praises of critics and fans alike with his quirky high school jazz band gone indie folk sound and use of strong historical/spiritual themes. His popularity culminated with his 2005 release, "Illinois", a concept album with 22 tracks all paying homage to history, culture, and personal events involving the state of Illinois. Since then, Stevens has been rather quiet in the pop world, having not released a followup to Illinois for five years (a rather long time in the pop world!). However, Stevens has been quite busy, working on multiple projects at a time including a multimedia presentation called The BQE and an album of string arrangements of his original electronic release, Enjoy Your Rabbit. However, none of his explorations in the classical music world have really satisfied fans like a true followup to Illinois would. Even as the crowd of people began to take their seats, there was an anticipation and anxiousness in the air. Would he play any of our beloved favorites? How would the bleeps and bloops of The Age of Adz sound live? How about the 20-minute song that ends that ends that album?
Sufjan's mysteriously electronic, long-winded, and dense new album, The Age of Adz, having just been released weeks prior, hadn't received the immediate embrace as his past work did. I will be doing a complete review of the release later on, but let me just say that its strange blend of electronica, over-the-top-orchestration, and lengthy, "progressive" feel translates immaculately onto the stage. Featuring a band that includes two amazing drummers, three brass players, and a host of backup singers, pianos, and guitars, Sufjan still managed to shine among the pack himself. He sounded as confident vocally as ever, while his daring arrangements managed to capture the sounds of Age of Adz in all its strangely epic glory in just the way you would hope. The climax of the night came in the performance of "Impossible Soul", Sufjan's 20-minute album closer that he described as an "album inside of a song". He prefaced the song by asking the audience to be patient with the song, which is oh so endearing right? Honestly there was not one dull moment, culminating in a surreal, technicolor dance party that had the whole crowd dancing, which was definitely the most exciting and absurd thing to ever happen at a Sufjan Stevens concert. Ending with a few hits from Illinois, Sufjan managed to balance the familiar with the unfamiliar, while still managing to be rather unexpected and dynamic at the same time. To be honest though, most of the audience probably didn't know any of the new material. But when it sounded this good, who really cares?
Here is some video footage from the show (not taken by me of course) that shows off some of the highlights of the show including silver pants, robot dancing, sweet projections, and neverending Sufjan epics: