09 August 2005

Upon Further Review…

It's been nearly two weeks since Sufjan Stevens braved the sweat shop currently known as Lo-Fi Cafe in SLC (more on that later), and I think I'm finally ready to discuss the performance.

Usually, an introduction like that is cause for apprehension. In the case of Sufjan and his band of Illinoisemakers, however, it's simply an indication of their brilliance. For 12 days, I've been thinking through the show. Replaying it backward and forward in my memory. Waiting hopelessly for bootlegged tracks to appear on scattered blogs. Downloading the entire next-day show in Denver (welcometothem!dwest). Rewatching video footage from a show in San Francisco (youaintnopicasso). And, obviously, wishing I had tickets to any number of Sufjan's soldout shows--five of 'em!--in NYC later this month.

The truth is, I think Sufjan's live show has cured me of the obsession so well chronicled on this very blog (and by hundreds of other fanboys/girls on their respective webspots). Obsession has been replace with pure admiration. Sufjan Stevens is an artist. And that's the best I can probably do to review his act. So while I ramble on for a couple thousand words, just remember this: To call him a songwriter or a musician or a historian or a storyteller just doesn't cut it; Sufjan is an artist, period.

With the day-time, outdoor highs near 100°F, the crowd was already glistening by the time the doors opened an hour late. And when the smoke-and-shadows voiced Liz Janes hit the stage, the Lo-Fi Cafe was practically packed and humidity was climbing by the second. Lo-Fi is a dump. An out-and-out pig sty. It's small. It's shabby. And it lacks any form of ventilation. Two lonely ceiling fans fight the impossible multiplication of body heat and three-digit temps. Let's leave it at this: by the time Ms. Janes finished her five song set, she was soaked. And so was I. And not in a slightly-sexy, misted with a kiss of rain sort of way. We're talking just plain old sweaty. Somehow, Liz Janes delivered and soothed, closing with a mindboggling, ukulele-crushing version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

Following some mandatory gear shifts and some pleasant costume changes--you may or may not know that Sufjan and his crew sport blazing Illinois cheerleader outfits, men in tees and orange sweatpants, women in tees, orange skirts and navy leggings--astute fans could catch Sufjan and crew in the back corner of the venue, huddled and cheering. Sufjan Stevens and the Illinoisemakers were working themselves into a frenzy, bouncing and shaking their pompoms (yes, pompoms). In seconds, they stormed the stage and launched into the thematic "Fifty States Song" (you can hear a snippet at www.sufjan.com).

This all sounds too gimmicky, too press-hungry. But the thrill of Sufjan is his earnestness, his realism. Sufjan Stevens has not undertaken the fifty albums for fifty states as some sort of trick, but as a celebration of each piece of the Union. All you need is to hear Sufjan sing the beautifully harrowing "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and you know that this is serious stuff. Recounting the horror of serial killings, Sufjan employs a falsetto that simply cannot be described. His final declaration, "and on my best behavior/I am really just like him" had me proclaiming that it was sweat rolling down my cheekÂ…and hoping that standers-by would believe it.

And did I mention the intermittent cheers? Raising pompoms and sporting well-choreographed hand signals, the Illinoisemakers spouted literate shout-outs in relation to a number of songs. The prize-winner: Metropolis, in which Sufjan managed to include references to Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot's character from "Perfect Strangers") and Webster Papadapolis (Emmanuel Lewis's character from "Webster"). Outstanding.

So when Suf and the eight-strong symphonic players launched into Come on Feel the Illinoise (the album's title track), I could hardly contain my awe. Sufjan explored the piano--nearly matching the Stevie-Wonder-esque chops he showcased on "They Are Night Zombies!!"--while others contributed by trumpet, guitars, percussion, banjo, and vibraphone. Vocally, all but the redheaded drummer chimed in, delivering harmonies Brian Wilson would certify. By the time the song hit the Cure-inspired midpoint, jaws were dropping. Even in the 110-degree/95%-humidity conditions, there was no stopping the Illini gala. Sufjan whisper-sang of Carl Sandburg's ghost and the musicians abated, isolating their frontman with their absence. With just slight backing from the drum kit and the occasional flourish elsewhere, Sufjan delivered and repeated Sandburg's pointed, dreamy supplication: "Are you writing from the heart?"

It's a question Sufjan doesn't take lightly. Every word is considered, re-considered and ultimately placed for maximum impact. Stevens' training as a fiction writer is both apparent and appreciated. In interviews, he has proclaimed his un-rockstar-like affinity for the workshop process. This is a man who recognizes the necessity of revision, and his songs are a reflection of his devotion.

Following the closing bars of "Come onÂ…", I just couldn't help it. At the quietest (and sweatiest) moment, I spoke everything I could muster. I uttered the words that wouldn't leave my head. As Sufjan moved from keyboard to guitar, I stared him down and said "WOW!" And I said it loud. And everyone agreed. This was music. This was art. This was performance. In response, one of the female Illinoisemakers looked up toward me and yelled back "And I'm doing this in leggings!" And she couldn't have been more correct. Not ironic leggings. Not funny leggings. But real live, honest-to-goodness cheerleader leggings. No one sweats like that for a laugh.

For some, Sufjan's appearance may have been little more than a sweaty ode to Illinois, but for those who cared to listen between the ting of the triangle and the pluck of the banjo, there was more at stake. While Sufjan Stevens exposes and extolls the treasures of statehood, while he revels in history and coincidence, he becomes the very thing he celebratesÂ…the pure essence of identity, the defining moments of a landscape. It sounds hyperbolic, but Sufjan Stevens is America. And in Salt Lake City, he was everything we could ask for. Even a brief savior from an unrelenting heat.