There's no denying that Stevens offered a night full of awe-inspiring showmanship, but his insistence on playing pretty much only new songs for the first two hours of the show was somewhat off-putting, especially considering that the music on his new The Age of Adz album and recent EP All Delighted People is often disjointed and cold due to his obsession with electronics and decisive avoidance of any sort of traditional song structure on his new works.
Stevens did his damnedest to give his new songs the best possible presentation, using a light show that bordered on Pink Floyd excess and bringing with him a 10-piece band of singers, percussionists, horn and synthesizer players to pull off his ornate, cosmic flights of fancy. The fact the band was dressed in Halloween costumes—leftovers they were repurposing to celebrate All Soul's Day—added to the carnival atmosphere on stage. And Stevens himself was a charming frontman, chatting up the crowd about Royal Robertson, the folk artist who's images he used for the animation filling the screen in the back of the stage, and describing his years of playing with different sounds before rounding the songs into those heard on his new releases.
After opening with an old favorite, "Seven Swans," Stevens dove headlong into a non-stop rush of new songs like "Too Much" and "Age of Adz." The visuals seemed to have an entrancing effect on the audience, because some songs were met with more stunned silence than adoring applause at their conclusions, save for Stevens himself, who clapped giddily at the close of most tunes Monday.
The songs that worked best seemed to be those that at least touched on the nouveau-folk and orchestral pop that brought Stevens to prominence years ago. He introduced "Heirloom" after the crazed performance of "Age of Adz" by announcing "We're going to clear the air with a little folk song." Likewise, "Enchanting Ghost" relied on its heart-wrenching lyrics rather than bells and whistles to draw in the audience, as did the elegant "Futile Devices."
While the stage show kept me interested, much of Stevens' new material left me cold. It was easy to appreciate the effort he put into his show, but not easy to connect with songs that seem more like sonic experiments than, you know, songs. But that's me; I like hooks. It was hard to tell how much the audience was into Stevens' efforts, because most songs were met with polite applause at most, and reverential silence more than once.
Stevens energy was finally met with some from the seated-all-night audience when he delivered his massive, near-half-hour version of "Impossible Soul," a song with multiple movements ranging from solo, acoustic segments to full-blown synth-pop dance-rock (complete with Stevens busting into The Robot). His two female backup singers, stuck in the back of the stage for the entirety of the show up to this point, suddenly came forward and exhorted the crowd to get on its feet and groove.
The resulting boost in energy was instantaneous, and make it all the more clear how much energy was lacking the preceding two hours. That point was made all the more clear as Stevens ended his lengthy set with "Chicago," arguably his biggest hit from his breakthrough Illinois album.
The sound of the audience screaming its delight with the arrival of that familiar tune was something the show could have used more of throughout. Give Stevens credit for his unquestioning belief in his work, and his visual sense. But here's hoping he mixes up the old and the new a little more next time.