Sufjan the Entertainer

Had the extreme pleasure of seeing Sufjan Stevens do his extraordinary stuff at the Olympia during the week, during which he out-Wayne Coyned any Flaming Lips show I’ve ever seen. The review of this week’s show can be read here, but it was quite the contrast to the first time I saw him, a much more conventional gig in The Village more than five years ago – back when he could accurately be described as a singer-songwriter.

Sufjan Stevens at the Olympia, 2011

Sufjan Stevens, reviewed in The Irish Times on Tuesday, October 18th, 2005

The Village, Dublin

“Dressed in an Evel Knievel-style stars ‘n’ stripes jumpsuit, and with a six-piece band in cheerleader outfits, it’s quickly apparent that Sufjan Stevens is not your regular singer-songwriter. Though he may be lumped in with the New Weird America scene along with Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, Stevens is very much doing his own thing, that thing being the much-touted “50 States Project”, albums inspired by every state in the Union. He and his band, the Illinoisemakers, began with the raucous 50 State Song (“It’s the start of the act, the 50 states, pack up your bags, it’s time to escape“), setting the tone.

His wildly reviewed and wildly ambitious Illinois album, the second in the project, formed the bulk of the setlist, with a few detours to his native Michigan, but it is far more than gimmicky Americana that Stevens has to offer. Delicate harmonies, gorgeous melodies and infectious hooks infuse songs about places such as Peoria and Decatur. A banjo squealing with feedback and some other muted sounds meant the music couldn’t match the crisp harmonies that Stevens achieves on record, and it was the down material, as he called it, with just Stevens, his guitar and the voices of his band, that translated best to the stage. A haunting John Wayne Gacy Jr, about the notorious serial killer, was particularly affecting.

The crowd was subdued, earning a half-serious “you’re lame” from Stevens when the enthusiasm didn’t match the exertion on stage. Cheers for Metropolis and Jacksonville began to get the audience into the cheerleading swing of things, but Stevens’s quiet demeanour was slightly at odds with the theatrics. It’s when plucking a guitar and whispering his narratives that he appears most comfortable. Stevens has suggested the “50 State Project” is just a joke, that he has no intention of recording albums about Nebraska or Montana, but whatever inspires his future work, Sufjan Stevens will continue to be one of America’s most gifted and unique songwriters.”

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