Mesa Arts Center
Friday, October 22.
It didn't take Sufjan Stevens long to bust out the banjo at his sold-out Mesa Arts Center show. The Detroit-bred, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter picked up the instrument just after taking stage, opening with the title track from Seven Swans, which is both his most parred-down and most conspicuously Christian album.
It also didn't take the newly-controversial Stevens, who is touring in support of his divisive, electro-orchestral new record, The Age of Adz, long to set the instrument aside. The rest of Sufjan's (pronounced SOOF-yawn) two-hour set came almost exclusively from Adz (pronounced Odds) a massive departure that's been called everything but out-and-out apostasy by jilted indie types.
Sufjan's banjo is, of course, as much a symbol of his Christian folk hero status as it is a physical object made of wood, leather and string, so perhaps it's telling that when the instrument finally found its way back into the mix during the Illinois-heavy encore, it was a member of his 10-piece backing band plucking the notes.
If I sound even vaguely disappointed in that, I wasn't. Maybe you actually wanted to hear 50 states worth of folk music, but I was sold on Adz from the album's second song, "Too Much." Likewise, I was sold on the show from the second song of the set, also "Too Much."
A warm and chatty Stevens introduced the song as a time to "Boogie to the dance beats... Boogie to the beat of America" and while it didn't (thankfully) get anyone in the boisterous-but-comfortably-seated crowd up and moving, it was a fitting segue into his more experimental material. A screen dropped in front of the stage so lasers could create a 3D-glasses-like effect around the stage and it was clear we'd entered a brave new era of apocalyptic art rock.
The Adz title track, which channels the Of Montreal catalog in more than a few places, followed. The track features Stevens singing, "And when I die, I'll rot. But when I live, I'll give it all I got." Those lines sound almost heretical on record but came across as inspirational live. "Heirloom," from Sufjan's August EP, All Delighted People, came next, the first in a peppering of homey acoustic numbers seamlessly blended into the overarching Adzness.
The set's high point was probably "Vesuvius" introduced by Stevens as "one of those improbable barriers to overcome." The song ("Sufjan, follow your heart, follow your the flame or fall on the floor") starts out slowly before reaching a crescendo that featured an eerie four-part recorder recital.
Another interesting moment was Stevens' extended monologue between " The Owl and the Tanager" and "Get Real Get Right" which lasted several minutes and included an extended explanation of his Adz inspiration, a schizophrenic/prophet/outsider artist named Royal Robertson.
While Sufjan didn't bait the crowd with his expletive-laden "I Want To Be Well," he did play his new record's other very controversial track, the 25-minute opus "Impossible Soul." Unfortunately, it felt like at least 26 live. The gesture was as brave as anything you'll see done for a large theater crowd in Mesa, and the excellence of the rest of the show earned Sufjan a pass, as far as I'm concerned. However, I'm not exaggerating when I say bored to the point that my eyes involuntarily closed despite the fact that I had just drank a cup of coffee while seated in the theater before the show started. But if Mr. Stevens felt it was important, I'm inclined to indulge him without pretending to like his Autotune-aided absurdity. Some may see the song as Adz "make or break" moment; I think it's more like a wanky extended guitar solo stupidly plugged into an otherwise stellar power ballad.
Having thanked the crowd for patiently sitting through the song, Stevens rewarded them with the tried-and-true "Chicago" before taking a break. The encore continued on that track and featured "The Dress Looks Nice on You," "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois," "Casimir Pulaski Day" and "John Wayne Gacy Jr." played just you would expect to hear them.
No doubt some in the crowd were relived to have their ticket purchase rewarded with Illinois era tracks, even if he wasn't going to touch that banjo again himself. I would have been fine with more Adz.
Personal bias: I'm sympathetic to Sufjan's beliefs, tastes and sensibilities.
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The crowd: Hipsters and oldsers. Also, the two smelliest hippies I've encountered at any show in a loooong time seated right in front of me. Seriously, folks, shower before you plan to sit in a crowded theater for two hours.
Overheard: "Why are they screaming for songs off Illinois? It's pretty obvious he has a setlist. What, he's just going to stop playing that and play your favorite song?" I had just whispered the same thing to my girlfriend.
Random notebook dump: The devil on screen in silouette and in a fake looking Ted masks both the first two songs... Lasers on the screen that dropped on front of the stage, out of step back up dancers dressed like rainbow brites... 5 minute lecture on royal Robertson that sounded like one of the speeches on a reality art show from contestants explaing their work