Sufjan Stevens live in St. Louis: polished rocks--but not an Avalanche
J. Gordon
10/9/2006 10:18:45 AM

There’s a rumor going around that Sufjan Stevens, darling of the indie-folkie set, is nephew to 1970s hippie peacenik icon-turned-Muslim Cat Stevens. I have yet to confirm if it’s true, but it would sure explain a lot about Sufjan’s delightfully off-kilter folk, his sweet delivery of the melancholy, and extraordinary musicianship. His sold-out September 2006 show at the Pageant in St. Louis showed it all off-- and yet also seemed to hold back; maybe because of the forced seating that forbid dancing. Maybe because of the formality of the orchestra. Or, maybe because of the new material--the recently released CD Avalanche [Asthmatic Kitty Records], a collection of B-sides from the amazing, critically acclaimed Illinoise album.

B-sides collections are always a risk. They are, after all, the throw-away tracks; the songs that only the die-hard fans really care to hear. Sufjan fortunately didn’t spend too much time performing the outtakes live. However, the hour-long set didn’t feel like he spent much time with us at all. But perhaps that’s just because we will never feel like we could ever have enough.

Introduced by Sufjan as “The Majesty Songbird Tour and the Magical Chinese Butterfly Brigade,” the fourteen-piece orchestra entered the stage decked out in butterfly wings, taking their places beneath kaleidoscope images on the screen above. Sufjan himself wore an impressive set of bird wings, and all musicians comically flapped about as they played their dreamy instrumentals in brass, strings and percussion.

Songs included “The Lord God Bird,” a song about the recently re-discovered Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (which had long been thought to be extinct) that Stevens has not recorded on any albums to date; Supercomputer (which Stevens says is an ode to the supercomputer in nearby Urbana, IL and suggested that St. Louis get their own so that he can write a song about us); and a handful of tracks from Seven Swans, in addition to Illinoise and Avalanche. And it was no surprise that Illinoise tracks got the greatest crowd response.

“Because this is a cool song, I’ll wear sunglasses,” Stevens said before launching into “Jacksonville.” Films of college kids and inflatable Supermen showed on the screen above, adding to the hokey American weirdness that is so closely associated with Stevens. And speaking of hokey American weirdness, midway through the show, Sufjan introduced us to “Andrico the Rooster,” which he said he stole from a Perkins Restaurant. “He looked so lonely! Now he’s got the high life, center stage!”

While Sufjan’s vocals were almost always perfect, it would have helped the vibe if they’d been turned up a few notches as those in the balcony seats strained to hear him-- and nothing killed the mood more than the woosh! of a toilet flush heard in the quieter moments.

The best moments of the show were always the stories and banter, and Stevens is a competent and delightful storyteller, even when not holding a banjo or tapping at a keyboard. “This next song is sort of an exorcism to confront my fear of flying things,” he said of “Predatory Wasp.” “At camp, we feared a giant predatory dragon monster. I can’t remember if it was real, but I know that it grabbed our flashlights right out of our hands!”

After his beautifully eerie tune, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” Stevens said, “Let’s continue on my morbid track singing about serial killers. This one is taken from a Flannery O’Connor story called “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” On what he said was his ‘major theme’ for the tour, Stevens played “Majesty Snowbird”—a song with soaring brass, strings and percussive power. He closed with “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “Chicago,” and returned for an encore of “Zombies” (complete with Night of the Living Dead scenes overhead) and a quietly beautiful “That Dress Looks Nice on You,” accompanied by a handful of his former butterfly orchestra.

All in all, it was a pleasing show, if not one to bubble over with and jabber excitedly about for days. While not really a full-on musical Avalanche, we were happy with a small and comfortable polished, tumbling rocks.


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