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Music Blog

Concert review: Sufjan Stevens at Kingsbury Hall

by Dan Nailen
- Posted // 2010-11-02 - It's safe to say no one at Sufjan Stevens' sold-out Kingsbury Hall show had ever seen a show quite like what they witnessed Monday night. But was Stevens delivering a classic, or the cold shoulder?

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.

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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.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // November 4,2010 at 22:52

I guess I can understand where you're coming from in regards to how you interpreted the concert, and I think a lot of people would agree with you. I, however, was affected quite deeply by his performance. I think I'm the only one of my friends that immediately took to his newest effort and it may be that I feel like I share some of the same ambitions as he does, or that I love his concepts and experimentations and inspirations. There's something about how he does what he does that resonates so strongly with me. I still haven't been able to shake that concert from my mind and I doubt I will ever be able. If it was cold to others, at least he was able to reach someone so profoundly as to completely change their musical aspect... me. Monday was a night I won't forget for a long long time.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // November 3,2010 at 10:17

Sounds like an exciting time. And all for the low, low price of $34 dollars.

In my opinion, what you witnessed were people trying to enjoy something that they didn't click with. They were probably trying hard to enjoy it because it is supposed to be hip.

There's a comment here stating that SLC audiences are satisfied sitting and listening, being stoic. That's not true. Bands like Sufjan's produce stoicism in their audience because bands like Sufjan's generate material that is dull and stoic.

Mediocrity: it's the banner of the new age.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // November 2,2010 at 22:26

I thought the show was dynamic and energizing, and it seemed like the crowd was excited about it. I appreciated the opportunity to experience so much of his new material. Compared to the recording, Age of Adz live was expansive and moving-- big sounds that were enhanced by the wild, futuristic animations that filled the stage space. Electronic music can feel cold to me too sometimes, but there was a lot of heat generated on stage last night with eleven performers dancing, singing and hammering on their instruments.

When I saw Sufjan perform Illinois years ago, some people in the audience didn't know what to think of that either. The album became more popular over time. Maybe this album needs more time to sink in. Maybe you don't like electronic music, and thats fine. But that concert was pretty alive, (given the restrictive venue) and I could tell the audience appreciated it. Or maybe it was only the people who, like me, watched it from the nosebleed section. We had a great time up there.

 

Posted // November 2,2010 at 23:40 - Agreed. The Nosebleed was bumpin'. The Album has only been out for over a month so of course its not going to get the same reception as classics like Chicago or John Wayne Gacey Jr. I have been to many great concerts with a stoic audience(Jonsi and Beirut to name a few). It seems to be the attitude of Salt Lake audiences to just sit and listen.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // November 2,2010 at 22:22

Very well written and considered review. Thanks for putting it together. I basically concur with your take on the energy of the performance by Sufjan and his talented cohorts and the lack of hooks in the new LP and EP (two releases over the last month or so). The new songs are interesting aural tone poems that are generally overlong by about 6 minutes each. And "Impossible Soul"? I watched numerous people check their emails 20 or so minutes in...

But all in all I did enjoy the visual spectacle, the musicality of a very talented collective and the absolute genius of Sufjan in his quiet moments.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // November 2,2010 at 21:46

Personally, I thought it was an excellent show, though I wish the audience was more into the music. I was ready to get up and groove from almost from the beginning but I didn't want to be the only dude doing so. I love the new album, so I enjoyed everything.

 

 
 
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