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Review Tue Dec 18 2012
Being a fan of Sufjan Stevens for many years, I knew any show he played would not be ordinary. There would be an ornate, whimsical stage set-up, surprises would be in store for the audience, and Sufjan would likely bring out all the bells and whistles (literally). This special show, this past Saturday night at The Metro, dubbed "The Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant On Ice" lived up to my heightened expectations; a title implying combustion of chaos, light-heartedness, and holiday cheer transformed the disjointed audience into a watchful crowd, hinging onto Sufjan Stevens' last note until his voice faded away.
Sufjan's earlier work, featured on albums Come On Feel The Illinoise and Michigan mainly consist of simple, sweet, and haunting ballads that showcase his incredible vocal range, and effortless ability to twist a simple melody into an insistent string of notes that wind through the soul and into the senses, touching the heart and mind. The music transforms from stunningly beautiful, to eerie and melancholy, though never mundane. Over time, Sufjan has adapted his unique creativity and musical genius to become more innovative and zany, as shown by the 25-minute-long electronica epic "Impossible Soul" featured on recent concept album, The Age of Adz, and two full-length holiday albums, spanning from classic tunes such as "Sleigh Ride," to the bizarre, as showcased by 15-minute-long "Christmas Unicorn" (yep, it's actually about a unicorn - but we'll get to that later).
The holiday-themed show leaned heavily towards Sufjan Stevens' holiday material, which attendees were able to glean right off the bat from the giant painted wheel mounted onto the stage, ready to be spun. It inevitably chose the songs that the audience would join in chorus together for that evening, with the sheet music that was handed out upon entry to many lucky fans as a guide. Before Sufjan stepped onstage, performer under the name "Sheila Saputo" opened up the show, moniker for musician Rosie Thomas, who would be joining Sufjan on stage during his set. Appearing in glasses that magnified her eyes by a ridiculous percentage, and with a nun's habit on her head, Thomas delighted audience members with her sassy and wholly inappropriate humor. Notable points included Rosie's take on the Mayan world apocalypse, in which she told the audience she bought 18 Camaros online without understanding the motive, and her advice to "just hug everybody." Her nativity story led off with "There's Mary, there's Joseph, and they're at a bonfire." Clearly, Thomas was able to get a good chuckle out of us.
Silver tinsel draped the stage's backing, featuring the spinning wheel, adorned with different holiday tunes, and a unicorn face in the middle. After singing a song with "Sheila," audience members patiently awaited Sufjan to take the stage. Sufjan, boasting a bright red hat entwined with tinsel, took the stage with his supporting band. This may be the only concert I'll ever attend where I could see musicians dressed as Santa, a chicken, a dinosaur, and a nun all playing music together in harmony. Sufjan embraced the concert's theme by merging elements of whimsy with serious musicianship, as fans came together in an alternate universe brimming with holiday cheer and sing-a-long joy.
After the "wheel of Christmas" was spun, "Christmas Woman" was elected the first song to be played. Mixing hits off of Sufjan's two holiday records, Songs for Christmas and this year's Silver & Gold, with a capella hymns and classic carols interspersed, Sufjan charmed the audience throughout the near two-hour-long set. He announced at the beginning of the show that only his holiday songs would be featured, directed at the "curmudgeons" and letting them know what was to be expected. However, Sufjan was not amiss from what the fans wanted to hear, many of them having listened to Come On Feel The Illinoise too many times to count. He took several short "Christmas breaks" in which he featured fan favorites "For The Widows in Paradise, For The Fatherless in Ypsilanti," and the hushed "That Dress Looks Nice On You," in which a lingering stillness came over the crowd, who focused intently on every note that reverberated from the acoustic guitar.
Frequently inviting audience members onstage to spin the wheel of Christmas, Sufjan and company would also frequently throw out goodies, such as inflatable Santas, dinosaurs, and more. During "The Child With The Star on His Head," bubbles flittered from the stage, audience members gazing around the room with joy all the while. As the set was nearing its close, Sufjan stepped off stage as Rosie Thomas led the crowd in ridiculously chosen questions for "Christmas trivia." Emerging back onstage in a costume saturated with balloons, tinsel, and an audacious headpiece, Sufjan stepped in front of the crowd as, you guessed it folks, a Christmas unicorn. Singing the epic ballad brought the show to a close, as Sufjan jolted across the stage, jumping off amps and other musical equipment pieces, climbing side beams and mesmerizing the crowd.
It wasn't over yet, without giving the audience what they had been hoping for beyond holiday tunes in all of their splendor; to hear Sufjan's music at its most pure, all featured off of Come On Feel The Illinois. Sufjan stepped onstage in a regular outfit, no tinsel or showy pieces, just him and the music. Beginning with "Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois," Sufjan next played a version of "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." that literally chilled me to the bone, especially in light of recent events at Sandy Hook Elementary. The song took on new meaning; it was a three minute-long vigil during which audience members stood hushed, watchful, in reverence to the lives that were lost just a mere day before. The solemn encore turned the previously rowdy concert hall into a peaceful, vigilant crowd. Sufjan ended the show with "Casimir Pulaski Day," and a riveting version of "Chicago," which had everyone singing along, falling in love with his music all over again.
Looking around me at the show, I saw all types of dress suitable and accepted by audience members: an elf hat, holiday lights strung around a person instead of a tree, Santa hats galore, and ugly holiday sweaters abounding. It was clear that audience members were looking for more than a simple show, but a unique respite from the doldrums of every day life, an experience and a place to rejoice in the joy of relishing in the holidays with others, and listening to music that they love from an extremely talented creative soul. I cannot think of a better way to spend one's night, and after seeing this unbelievable show, I'd be hard-pressed to find a way more incredible.