In the last eight years or so, Sufjan Stevens established himself not only as the defining artist of the indie folk genre, but also as a genius of lush, grandiose orchestration. The lyricism of his form was utterly transcendent, and transformed even the narrative of a serial killer into a work of art. Audiences during Sufjan’s brief American tour, which is wrapping up Monday night with a second performance at the Beacon Theater, have had to readjust their expectations as Sufjan has turned away from his folk staples to dabble in electronic effects and multimedia performances. Although Sufjan’s first New York show on Sunday night at the Beacon opened with “Seven Swans” on banjo, Sufjan’s sprawling two hour and 15-minute set almost exclusively drew on material from The Age of Adz, his most recent album, which has proven to be quite a departure from the sound he cultivated on Illinois and Michigan.
With various videos and projections displayed on a backdrop behind the 11-piece band, a contingent of three back-up dancer-singers, and a slew of costume changes (mostly in the way of jackets and headgear, and yards of what appeared to be reflective tape), this show was not the Sufjan you might have expected — Sufjan himself described the performance as “Avatar meets Cats on Ice.” Sufjan stuck to the synthesizer and keyboard during most of the new songs, often joining the backup dancers. It’s a shame, however, that Sufjan’s development as a multi-media artist has scaled back the other elements that used to be staples of his performance. The best parts of “The Age of Adz,” and the best parts of the night, were when Sufjan did what he does best: guitar, vocals, banjo. Sadly, though, even during “Chicago,” Sufjan did not even touch his guitar. Perhaps as a concession to Sufjan purists and diehard fans, however, the night ended with “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “To Be Alone With You” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” in succession, bringing the audience to their feet collectively amidst a shower of beach balls and balloons.
The current tour, in larger and grander venues than last year’s, also reflects Sufjan’s growing fame (or perhaps the eagerness of his devoted fans). Certainly, the Beacon offered Sufjan a better space for staging his music-dance-film performance; it was apparent last fall that Sufjan had outgrown venues like the Bowery and the Music Hall, as the stage was so cluttered with instruments and gear that the band members could hardly move around. But Sufjan seemed a little uncomfortable with the extra elbow room on stage that he now possesses; he made a series of somewhat awkward jokes about the Coca-Cola sponsorship of his concert, perhaps suggesting some discomfort with his stature and the scrutiny that comes with it. And while venues like the Bowery and the Music Hall provide a more intimate environment for artists to interact with fans outside of the music, Sufjan’s rambling stories about vertigo, his fear of water, trial by fire, and an extended digression into the biography of Royal Robertson, seemed out of place in the vast chamber of the Beacon. Nonetheless, Sufjan succeeded admirably in creating a concert experience that appealed to all of the senses.
The opening band, DM Stith, was a lone folk singer-guitarist who might have had a much harder time opening for Sufjan when Sufjan could also be described as a folk singer-guitarist rather than a singer-choreographer-dancer-guitarist. In any case, he played four songs briefly in almost total darkness, and also plays keyboard/vocals in Sufjan’s band.
Age of Adz
Now That I’m Older
Get Real Get Right
Concerning the UFO Sighting
Casimir Pulaski Day
To Be Alone With You (Sufjan solo)
John Wayne Gacy Jr. (Sufjan solo)