Last Saturday my wife and I drove to Austin to catch Sufjan Stevens in concert for the very first time. He is doing 24 dates in 30 days to promote his second Christmas-themed EP box set, Silver and Gold. The name of the tour? “The Sirfjam Stephanapolous Christmas Sing-A-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Spectacular Music Pageant Variety Show Disaster” (Click here to see seven “promotional” videos produced for the album and the tour).
Here are a few things that happened at the concert:
– The show was slated to start at 8, but nothing happened until 8:30. I didn’t think there was an opening act — there didn’t seem to be any gear for anybody but Stevens’ troupe of players on stage. However, people around us kept mentioning that indeed someone was opening the show. At 8:30, a very strange woman came out dressed as Santa Claus, wearing a neck brace and glasses so thick you’d think the sheer weight of the lenses would tilt her forward. She did a most bizarre stand-up set, during which she kept munching something crunchy, and used a sort of flip chart with words she associated with Christmas. It was as awful as it sounds (the crowd seemed into it, though. My wife’s conclusion: we’re old). Mercifully her set was just 15 minutes long. (Tangent: how smart is it to tour with a comedian as an opening act? It’s just one person with one mic to set up. I’d do this all the time if I were a musician)
– Unbeknownst to me at the concert, the name of the comedian is Sheila Saputo…and she is none other than the main backup vocalist for Sufjan’s band. So there you go.
– Incredible efficiency – one of your band members opens for you, and there’s only one mic to set up!
– At around 8:55 Sufjan appeared on stage, but all he did was tune his guitar and banjo. Even though the roadies had already done it before. He then disappeared offstage.
– By 9:14 I was wondering if he was ever going to come back. The smoke machine had been doing its job sporadically to no avail. But just as I told my wife that if Sufjan didn’t come out until 9:30, we were going to the bar at the back of the venue and sitting down (our feet were killing us from standing since 6:30 — yes, we’re old), Sufjan and his merry band of players appeared.
– They were all in costume. The guitarist, Casey Foubert, was wearing half a chicken costume and half a Superman costume. The bass player, Ben Lanz, was wearing a Santa costume, but had a Smurf mask. The drummer, James McAlister, had a full body skeleton costume. The main backup singer was dressed as a snowman (this was Rosie Thomas, a.k.a Sheila Saputo, a.k.a opening act). The second backup singer/keyboardist, Nedelle Torrisi, wasn’t wearing a costume, but had a trucker hat on. Sufjan was also wearing a similar hat, but he had tied cheap-looking antlers to it. He had fluorescent tape stuck to his jeans.
– The biggest prop on stage was a very big wheel (about 15 feet in diameter) with Christmas carols on it. This was the Wheel of Christmas. The names of the carols on it matched the sing-along pamphlet we got outside the venue while we were in line. Sufjan was not kidding when he said this show was a Christmas sing-along.
– Sufjan’s voice live is unbelievable. Actually, everything about his musicianship is incredible. He’s one of the most effortless musicians I’ve ever seen live. I have a theory that if you gave Sufjan one hour to compose the most beautiful song ever written, he’d show up after 45 minutes with 3 songs that would melt your bones. And he would perform them seamlessly.
– The incredible musicianship isn’t restricted to him: while Sufjan played the acoustic guitar, the banjo, the piano, assorted weird little keyboards with effects, and did some percussion along with the lead vocals, his guitarist played the bass, the banjo, some keyboards and did backing vocals. The bass player played electric guitar, acoustic guitar, the trombone, the trumpet, and sang. It was just fun to watch them switch around and take turns at using all the instruments available.
– Oh, the drummer also played bass, keyboards, and sang.
– After showcasing a few of the songs off of Silver and Gold, his 5 EP Christmas package he’s touring behind, Sufjan said that it was time to introduce us to the Wheel of Christmas. Every time he announced the Wheel, we all joined along, Wheel of Fortune style. First, band members spun the wheel. Once “fate” (quotation marks because some band members cheated and stopped the wheel on a song they wanted to play instead of letting it roll) selected a song, Sufjan set the stage for all of us to sing along. He didn’t even sing into a mic during most of these songs. Naturally, most people sang, since the carols on the wheel were very popular, and remember, we had lyric sheets.
– After a couple of band members spun the wheel, Sufjan and the backing vocalist dressed as a snowman started asking for people in the audience to come up and spin the wheel. Spinners included: a woman wearing a giant unicorn head (she was first, naturally), a middle-aged man wearing a christmas-themed viking hat, a stoned blonde dude wearing a “naughty” Santa hat, a man in his thirties with his ten year-old kid (who was wearing a Star Wars T-shirt. Sufjan started playing the Superman theme, got confused, but then played the Star Wars theme on the recorder), a guy with a fake Olympic gold medal, and many more I don’t remember anymore.
– After a few spins of the wheel, Sufjan and the band embarked on more of his carols. I’m not an expert in Christmas music (fact is, I barely tolerate it), so I can’t tell you much about the selections. But they were epic. And done in many different styles, sometimes shifting everything within the same carol. In other words, the carols were completely sufjanized.
– Out of nowhere, Sufjan said that we were going to take a break from Christmas, and played the gorgeous “The Dress Looks Nice on You” off of his 2004 album Seven Swans. A very random choice for a very random moment. Then again…there was a cartoon unicorn at the center of a 15 foot wheel with Christmas carols on it. Random is the norm with Sufjan.
– At one point Sufjan adjusted his mic stand for about 5 minutes, and while he did that, he told this long story about how his parents always tried to have the best Christmas for him and his siblings, but it was hard because they were a large family and his parents never had enough money. He then said that his parents embarked on all sorts of hairbrained get-rich-quick schemes in order to fund a “proper” Christmas, one of which was starting a christmas tree farm, only to realize that the discount saplings they bought were of bonsai trees. The man adjusted his mic stand for the duration of this long monologue, and delivered it absolutely perfectly. Maybe he’s branching into stand-up.
– A second round of spinning the Wheel of Christmas happened later in the show, and this time the poor bassist got his choice rejected (Sufjan said the carol in question was “too fast”), but one lucky audience member got to sing one of the carols on stage with the backing vocalist dressed as a snowman.
– I kept thinking that this had to be the most unique, surreal, and memorable concert I had ever been to. Was it a concert? Was it performance art? Was it a game show? A variety show? Was it a comedy? A drama? It was everything, naturally. Sufjan Stevens is a creative dynamo – you can never know where he’ll go next in any song, let alone from song to song.
– Early on, and then near the end of the show, the band sang two very old hymns…a capella. Because that jives with a punk version of Frosty the Snowman, and all the electronic effects (including some tasteful autotune) that popped up regularly.
– One underrated aspect of the show was watching the band improvise cheesy game show music bits for each person who got to spin the WHEEL….OF….CHRISTMAS. The band never did the same bit twice, and I think there were about 10 different spinners. I would pay money to hear Sufjan and his band jam.
– Whenever a performer can rock out loudly and then make everybody in the venue shut up for a quiet number, they inevitably end up on my good list. Sufjan and his band achieved this particular feat many times in a single show. Their range is unbelievable: they can go from hyper goofy to hyper operatic, to minimalistic and serious to seamlessly groovy. Effortlessly.
– Near the end of the show Sufjan took another break from Christmas, picked up his banjo, and played a very beautiful song off of his Michigan album, “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti”. Another random choice, another beautiful rendition. Goosebumps time.
– For the last song before the inevitable encore, “Christmas Unicorn”, Sufjan prepared by dropping his antler-ed trucker hat and put on what seemed like a cyclist helmet painted in fluorescent green which had a big unicorn horn on the front, and what seemed like swan wings at the back. He then put on a golden vest that had long inflated balloons (the kind that people twist around to make animals) attached to it, as well as a two-feet tall inflatable Santa and a two-feet tall inflatable purple unicorn. Along with many other things I can’t even describe here. “Christmas Unicorn” was epic, beginning and ending with just Sufjan on the piano. In between, many things happened, and at one point Sufjan was standing on top of the piano.
– At this point, giant red balloons had been tossed into the audience.
– There was a confetti gun, too.
– And a machine that made bubbles.
– The audience went nuts after “Christmas Unicorn”. So Sufjan had to come out again. Mercifully relieved of his strange attire, he came out to perform the opening song from his Illinois album, the beautiful piano piece “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”. We were definitely in the goosebump zone.
– Let the record show that when I bought tickets for this concert, the website informed me that Sufjan Stevens would only be playing Christmas music (he does have 10 EPs worth of material, anyway). I was already ecstatic that he played 3 non-Christmas songs. So nothing prepared me for….
– Not happy with slaying me once, Sufjan finished with an extremely pared down version of “Chicago”, another gem from Illinois. It was just him on the nylon string guitar and the backing vocalist that used to be dressed as a snowman. With everybody singing along, this was the absolute perfect way to end the show. Sufjan was the last to leave the stage, and seemed genuinely touched at the audience’s reaction to the performance.
– It has to feel good to sell out big clubs like this one on a tour where you promote a 5-EP set of Christmas carols.
– The show clocked in at about 2 hours and 20 minutes. These days it’s rare to get a band to even go past the hour and a half mark.
– If you want to witness an exercise of complete artistic freedom, just go and see Sufjan Stevens on this strange Christmas tour. Go with an open mind, and you won’t be disappointed. It’s an experience unlike any other.