Friday, November 12, 2010

Sufjan Stevens: Concert Review and a Meditation on the Audience

Last Sunday, I saw Sufjan Stevens in concert in Asheville, North Carolina. It was a capstone to my week of Sufjan, though unfortunately it came too late for me to feature it in my write-up. The concert did, however, leave me with a lot to think about, both in terms of Stevens' new album, and in terms of his audience. 

Our friend Colleen recently wrote about the affinity that hipsters have for Sufjan. Well, Asheville is some sort of mountain-hipster-Mecca, resplendent with pretentious coffee shops, second-hand bookstores, and scores of the most unkempt beards that I have ever seen. The air smelt of incense and unfiltered cigarettes. When my Concert Companion and I stopped a resident to ask about a good place to get some food, he automatically assumed that we were vegetarians. In short, the hipster to non-hipster ratio was higher than I've ever seen, and dense enough to be somewhat frightening. 

We waded through the sea of plaid-shirts and knit caps to find our seats. Despite the fact that Stevens wore those stupid fairy wings while playing the opening number ("Seven Swans"), the concert got off to a good start. The material was mostly from his new album, The Age of Adz, but the large accompanying band up on stage helped make the arrangements a lot of fun.

The Concert Itself

The show was a multimedia extravaganza, the highlight being the title track. Live trumpets and strings blared, eerie lights danced off screens that were raised and lowered, Royal Robertson's artwork was put in motion on a video that served as a backdrop. The back-up singers danced with ribbons as they sang. The Age of Adz is a dense, strangely-orchestrated album, but Sufjan managed to bring all its weirdness to life not only through sounds, but through sight as well. 

In between the louder, more packed numbers, there were a few breathers that came from Stevens' quieter tracks on his recent releases. He played a very moving rendition of "The Owl and the Tanager" on a keyboard, and sang a very beautiful version of "Futile Devices." The contrast between these intimate songs and the brassy, apocalyptic fury of "The Age of Adz" or "Vesuvius" kept the concert from veering too far in either direction. 

It was a strange compromise between operatic pomp and acoustic indie warmth. For some reason, the crowd seemed to respond better to the quieter tracks, though I often felt that these served more as an excuse for Stevens to catch his breath than to really create an emotional piece. The audience went wild when he pulled out some favorites from Illinois for his encore, as though that was they had been waiting for that the past ninety minutes. But the Illinois songs (with the exception of a raucous "Chicago") felt tired, as if Stevens had already put his heart into the earlier songs and was merely dipping back into his repertoire because he knew that was what the audience wanted to hear. The performances of "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "Casimir Pulaski Day" were passable, but certainly didn't top the furor "Get Real Get Right" when backed by a full band, or even the tranquil "Enchanted Ghost."

The Audience

Stevens' material on The Age of Adz is strange, and I wasn't sure how I was going to like seeing it translated into a concert setting. It turned out to be a lot of fun, but I had some problems with the hipster-filled Asheville audience. They sat in the theater quietly, treating the music with an irksome sort of devout reverence. Any time someone from the audience would cheer or make a noise, a bunch of annoyed "Ssssh" sounds would echo from across the audience, as if the noisemaker had farted during a funeral. It was clear that, for most of the audience, Sufjan Stevens was SERIOUS STUFF.

But Stevens' conduct didn't quite fit in with this aesthetic. While the audience treated the shenanigans on stage as though it was some sort of high-class performance art, Stevens smiled and cracked self-effacing jokes and put on silly costumes and neon warpaint and generally seemed to enjoy being goofy. Most of the audience was eating out of the palm of his hand, providing voracious applause after he completed every sentence. If Sufjan had come out, taken a shit on the stage and said "Thank you, good night," I think that most of those in attendance would have given him a standing ovation. I was at the inauguration of Barack Obama, and I don't think the attendees took it as seriously as this concert.

The highlight of the show (referred to by Stevens as his "dissertation of the evening") was a rendition of "Impossible Soul" that neared half an hour in length. The sycophantic crowd brought in another round of "Sssh"es, instilling a silence usually reserved for symphony orchestras and Shakespeare productions. This audience-enforced silent admiration was immediately contradicted by the fact that Sufjan botched the lyrics within the first ten seconds, laughed out loud, and asked his band to start over. It was as if he was deliberately trying to break the audience out of their tight-lipped worship.

Despite the initial mishap, the thirty minute song was then performed without a hitch, and if I had thought Stevens had been weird before, he really pulled out all the stops for this one. I was laughing with delight by the same the back-up singers started dancing within a giant paper-mache chrysalis that was lowered from the ceiling while Stevens sang through an Autotune. 

But the audience remained strangely lifeless. It's not that they weren't enjoying the show; looking around, all eyes were focused on the stage. But they were enjoying it by standing silently still, treating this thoroughly silly performance as though it were a baptism rite. By the time Sufjan put on a gorilla mask and starting jumping up and down while the back-up singers burst out of the chrysalis wearing bright pink hot pants and clapping their hands, I wanted to scream to the audience, "Stop taking this so seriously!" Members of the bands waved their arms, in a desperate attempt to get the audience to dance, to sing along, to do anything. A few brave souls in the balcony swayed back and forth, but the die-hard fans in the front rows stood up...and simply stood their, staring straight ahead, as if unsure what to do next.

Why So Serious?

"Thanks for bearing with me," Stevens told the crowd at the end of the night. "For my new album, I wanted to try out a different method of song-writing, and maybe create some interesting sounds." This approach - and the whole damn performance - helped me make peace with The Age of Adz. As a piece of Personal Expression, it's bloated and pretentious to the point of absurdity. As a collection of interesting musical ideas, it's a rousing success. Unfortunately, most of the audience seemed convinced that Stevens was opening his soul on stage, despite the gorilla mask and the neon warpaint and the rhinestone glasses. 

I once took a course on avant-garde music in college. In one particularly contentious class period, in which we listened to some nasty-sounding music set to weird-ass Stan Brakhage prints, a student finally burst out, "Should we just take all art seriously?" The professor, a burgeoning avant-garde composer himself, replied, "No, I don't think we should take any art seriously." This was an answer that grated on me back in college, when I thought that all art had to be some sort of sacrosanct personal expression from the depths of the artist's creative soul. But watching Stevens make a fool of himself (his words, not mine!) on stage on Sunday, I began to understand what my professor might have meant. Some art is far more enjoyable when the audience isn't convinced that it's meant to be a personal revelation or religious experience. 

So I left the concert having thoroughly enjoyed myself. But a lot of the crowd seemed cool towards the show. Part of it is probably because its a different direction from the folk pop of Michigan and Illinois. But I also think that the majority of the audience took Sufjan's music far more seriously than Sufjan himself did. Next time I'd like to see a show where I can let out a cheer without being "Sssh"ed by the audience.