When Sufjan Stevens expressed interest in learning trumpet at a young age, his stepmother ignored the request and ordered an oboe to their home in Detroit, Michigan. Sufjan expanded this story at Kings Theater on May 2nd – the newly refurbished hidden gem on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, NY – by telling the audience that his oboe teacher was a mean alcoholic woman and dipped her reeds in gin. That last part could’ve been a joke but you never know how far oboe teachers will take their alcoholism. Sufjan’s stepmother’s trumpet neglecting mentality was a key seed for the eclectic, multi-instrumentalist folk superstar that Sufjan has grown into today.
The concert began with a short vocal jam as Sufjan sat at the piano to provide some accompaniment. He then proceeded to play the new album in its entirety in the order it appears on the record. For Death With Dignity he played guitar and warmed up his hushed vocals. Sufjan’s vocal style is best described as a blend of gentle falsetto and soft airiness.
Should’ve Known Better was one of the highlights of the night as the rest of the band added a lot of colour to Sufjan’s mastermind songwriting. For the big finish the drums kicked in, an addition that does not appear on the studio, to add more excitement to the live performance. Next was the intimate Drawn To The Blood as Sufjan played the song in the dark with red spotlights beaming on the stage.
Another highlight of the night was All Of Me Wants You because it was performed with a computerised beat (another difference from the album). It’s interesting how I always bash bands/artists for going the folktronica direction when a new album comes out, and even though Sufjan went back to his folk roots on the latest release, seeing him live makes electronic additions more exciting than hearing them on headphones.
For the next song Sufjan performed a solo version of Eugene and childhood home videos were projected on the stage backdrop. This added a very special personal emotion to the theme of the latest album that was dedicated to his mother Carrie and stepfather Lowell.
Fourth Of July was an outstanding tune of the night, as Sufjan bounced back to the piano and his guitarist contributed heavy electric swells with a clarinet effect. Before he began the story about his oboe teacher he thanked the audience. “It’s like all the angels in heaven are singing in this room when you clap.”
Sufjan finally picked up the banjo towards the end of the set for the classic fan favorite In The Devil’s Territory. He continued the streak of old songs and just before he closed the set with The Dress Looks Nice On You he informed us “this is me trying to be Nick Drake.”
The audience was enamored by his intimate choices for the three-song encore. First was the haunting Concerning the UFO Sighting on piano then he brought an even softer emotion on To Be Alone With You. The energy picked up for Chicago and during the middle of the song he quickly added a banter snippet “true story” about sleeping in parking lots on a road trip with his friend from Chicago to New York. Without question Sufjan Stevens is a truly remarkable contributor to indie folk and even though he sometimes strays from wood instruments and organic songwriting/performing methods, he proved to me that his live concert is incredibly enhanced by minor computerised, inorganic artistic contributions.
Scott J. Herman