23 August 2005
Sufjan Stevens told me he likes to think melodies just come through him and he’s their mouthpiece, merely translating and organizing them into song. He’s not the star, in other words, the song is, and the players obey its will. Hardly a new idea, but not necessarily one artists like to throw around either. (I would have included this in that bigger piece, but without a lot of me finessing, Stevens would have come across contradicting himself a bit, especially after all the inspiration’s a myth, faith in craft stuff.)
Given all that, what struck me most about Stevens’s fantastic performance last night with his Illinoisemakers Band was how well he translated that humility onto stage (or just a refusal of responsibility–if you think the songs suck, don’t blame him, right?). Despite some marvelously overblown conceits–each of his five Bowery nights had a theme, and tonight’s was Prom Night, with the Illinoisemakers as the prom band, all dressed as cheerleaders (yeah, I know)–the performance remained songcentric, decentralized, and remarkably gimmickless.
The matching costumes (uniforms?) do some work here. Plenty bands have histories with them, to different effects, but in most cases the lead man is always recognizable, his eyes always bright, his role ostensibly to make that connection with the audience that for some reason people still hope matters. But our focus doesn’t stay on Stevens, who spends much of the show behind a Baldwin, not even facing the audience, and sitting in hilariously close proximity to the bassist, who if he’s not Stevens’s brother is the best Sufjan Stevens (Thug Remix) I’ve seen in quite some time. Instead, our concentration moves to and from the parts as they fight over the most interesting lines. Rhythmically complex, multi-part, multi-movement songs like “Come On Feel The Illinoise!” (and turns out the Columbian Exhibition name-checked in the song title is not about the town of Columbia, as previously reported, woops) and “The Tallest Man” became visual workouts for those who tried to locate physical origins of the sounds.
Am I going to say the songs “magically came to life”? Probably. For now what I got for you is this: In addition to all the poet vs. prophet, who’s song is it anyway stuff that Stevens struggles with, he cites the high art vs. folk art (i.e. harmony-privileging European classical composition, we’ll say, vs. pop music), and his interest in resolving the two, as an equally pressing anxiety. The music definitely bears the burden there, but thinking visually, and considering the high art-folk art shtick, what a better resolution than diligent players dressed as cheerleaders? And beyond where the music lead their bodies, remember too that cheerleaders, no matter how peppy, obey a drill, and on stage those drills proceeded almost always exclusively from the music. People carp at Stevens and the Noisemakers for “not having fun on stage”, not head-nodding or getting into it man. Aay, I doubt they weren’t having fun; bee, maybe the rigidity was the point, nothing ever taking anything away from the natural performance of the music. Form follows function, and on stage the motions of the band while playing had an appeal on their own.
Just to underscore the extent to which Stevens tried to evacuate his star appeal: When was the last show you saw that the most prominent member of the headlining band introduces the openers, then changes into costume to perform with them? The thrill of seeing the man behind your favorite record of the year take the stage, it dissipates before it has the chance to dissipate.
Before the prom king and queen were announced (and I was bummed to find out the chosen two were ringers, not random audience members), Stevens did take the stage solo and performed something off Seven Swans, I forget what. However contrived and conditioned, the singer-songwriter shtick still carries the authentic one-to-one person-persona, and dealing with Sufjan without mediation was entirely debilitating, as if all the Illinois material was just set-up. Right, the same guy who was wearing an American Flag outfit, riffing on the 50 States.