Sufjan Stevens, Wiltern Theater, 10-9-06
Backed by a band of fourteen, including strings and horn players, all sporting matching uniforms and the much-discussed butterfly wings on their backs, Sufjan’s Wiltern show is his biggest stage production to date, and very likely, a performance that will grow in legend over time. This was grand stuff on stage and received with much love from a downright reverent audience. Also, there were inflatable Santa Clauses and Superman dolls distributed to the audience, which included Danny DeVito. The End. Just kidding. More blathering and pictures below.
The high-ceilinged space of the Wiltern, which tends to reverberate and diffuse electric sounds, has never sounded better, with a loud, rich sound mix. To make a not-so-random comparison, Belle & Sebastian even with the LA Phil at the Bowl did not sound this full and clear. This is the ideal size of theater to take in this sort of rock/folk/orchestral hybridization.
Experiencing the arrangements of his records in the person, one is hit with the enormity of Sufjan’s ambition. More so than on record, live, one gets the full sense of every little musical bit that is going on within a song. But before the arrangements veer too close to the brink of prog or classical, they pull back and everything falls away to leave that open space for Sufjan’s vocal. As a measure of the respect in this audience, not once did some dude (it’s always some dude) yell out during those silent pauses. As a counterpoint to his big creations, the self-effacing aw-shucks deadpan personality of the Sufjan between songs (at one point joking, “I’m gonna get fired” after blowing the start of a song) seems incongruous but feels real.
I’m sure he would be uncomfortable with the label, but this guy is an American treasure. There is probably no other popular musician today that oscillates so easily from one-man-and-a-guitar mode (as he did for a pin-drop-quiet “John Wayne Gacy”) to elaborate orchestral arrangements. At this point, he is on his way to earning a place in that elite lineage of the Elliott Smiths and Jeff Buckleys, as contemporary otherworldly pop music talents who do things no one else attempt to do. I’d say see him now before he gets any bigger, but I hate that idea–as if getting “big” is inherently a bad thing–and, frankly, I don’t see that happening. If the new one, “Majesty Snowbird”–a show stopping 10-minute epic built around a simple piano motif that swells to a climatic electric guitar crescendo–is any indication, he won’t be crossing over to the masses in any abrupt way, but will pick up a few believers here and there, as he only fortifies his current audience.
Photos by Jeannette