Friday, October 15, 2010
Sufjan Stevens @ Massey Hall: photo by Michael Ligon
Update: Review now up.
With the memories of a thoroughly entertaining Belle and Sebastian show at Massey Hall the night before, it was Sufjan Stevens, promoting his latest album The Age Of Adz which brought me back to The Grand Old Lady Of Shuter for the the second night in a row this past Wednesday. And I could have sworn that the crowd was exactly the same for both shows. The first and only time I'd see Sufjan live was back on September 10, 2005 at Trinity St. Paul's in Toronto and having missed out on tickets when he played an intimate, extremely sold-out show at Lee's Palace on October 1 of last year, I pounced on the presale when tickets went onsale for this show back in August. Presale success was achieved and I snagged a balcony seat, row B and almost smack dab centre to take in Sufjan's show which on it's own terms was as good as the Belle and Sebastian show the night before.
Opening the show was Asthmatic Kitty roster-mate DM Stith. Tall and slim, the young gentleman took up his position at his mic and chair surrounded by the musical gear that Sufjan and band would be using later that evening. Playing a mere four songs that would span about twenty minutes total, Stith adhered to a similar indie-folk sensibility as his roster-mate Sufjan performing the songs with acoustic guitar with smooth fingerpicking technique, but injected his songs with some experimental and electronic creativity using a looper to add some sweeping vocal and guitar effects. Sombre and passionate were Stith's vocals throughout the set. Taking a swig of water from a vessel which he jokingly contained hair spray, he declared that he'd play a song that was easier on his voice, then launching into the autumnal "Thanksgiving Moon". His impassioned vocals combined with the subtle acoustic and electronic instrumentation kept the crowd entranced for the entirety of his brief set. It's sets like these that were made for the acoustics of Massey Hall. His last song was entitled "My Impatience" with Stith at one point during the song singing "tell me when it's over" - no knock on Stith who I and in fact most of the audience thought was fantastic if the audience response at the end of the set was any indication, but there was perhaps a little truth in that song title as I couldn't wait till Sufjan came on.
The stated set time for Sufjan to come on was 9:15 pm so when the lights dimmed at 9 pm I was a little taken back but then suddenly overcome with anticipation. With Sufjan taking centre stage, flanked by two female back-up vocalist/dancers, they were joined by two drummers on drumkits on either side of the stage, plus a guitarist, bassist, a keyboardist, two trombonists and DM Stith on piano and back-up vocals. Adding to the aesthetics was a backdrop that showed various artistic projections[some of which were the paintings of one eccentric American artist named Royal Robertson whom he'd speak about later] throughout the night. The night's setlist was culled almost exclusively from his new album The Age of Adz, the first two songs being fairly dramatic pop-rock exercises, the drumkits on either side of the stage being used to great effect. In response to that Sufjan jokingly promised us a song to lift up our "...spirits after all that drama...", then launching into a song, the far more subtle "Heirloom" which featured the vocal phrase "I'll never let it push your arms no more". This was the night's strength - the ease with which Sufjan could transition between subtle acoustic folk songs and his dramatic, ambitious band compositions. In other terms, jokingly as Sufjan may have put it, the new album deals with his confusion between love and the apocalypse, no more clearly illustrated than with a song like "Vesuvius" where Sufjan namechecks himself in the lyrics, "Sufjan, follow your heart, Follow the flame, or fall on the floor".
Continuing his love vs apocalpyse meme, the end of the set featured a "3 song cyle about love and the apocalypse", ending with the spectacularly infectious and danceable "Impossible Souls" as Sufjan, at times singing with a vocoder, and his back-up singers donned hipster sunglasses and danced gleefully as the backdrop displayed images of Sufjan that wouldn't look out of place in Vice Magazine or a Urban Outfitters catalogue. "Impossible Souls" being the last song of the new album would have been a dynamite ending to the main set, with the deep optimism of the back-up singers singing "boy we can do much more together better get a life get a life get a life" as Sufjan responed with "it's not so impossible". But then Sufjan and band came back to end the main set for real by surprising us with Illinoise favourite "Chicago". That damn near knocked me off my seat but then after a much coaxing from the crowd, Sufjan eventually returned to the stage by himself to give us one more Illinoise tracks, "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois" before ending the night with the serene beauty of fan-favourite "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.". My only criticim of the show really is that the audience remained seated for the entire set. I'd have expected that at least the floors would have gotten up for the danceable "Impossible Souls" but I didn't notice anyone try and that was a shame because Sufjan was certainly getting his dance on, as ironic as his hipster glasses might have been. Overall, I think I like this version of Sufjan over the pep squad leader of the last show at Trinity St. Paul Church five years ago. And hopefully it won't be another five years before I get to see Sufjan in a venue like Massey Hall again.
Photos: Sufjan Stevens, DM Stith @ Massey Hall, Toronto (October 13, 2010)
MySpace: DM Stith
MySpace: Sufjan Stevens