Sufjan Stevens @ the Rialto Theatre in Tucson
It was a night of deliberate holiday kitsch. It was an ugly Christmas sweater gone awry.
If someone told me I mistakenly traveled down to Tucson for a Katy Perry Christmas celebration, based on the costumes, blow up unicorns, and giant game show style "Wheel of Christmas," I might have believed them, had I not been familiar with singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens' fascination with all things Christmas.
It's adorable, really, but not what you'd expect from the oh-so-serious songwriter behind ornate, poetic, complex, classically-inspired records like Come On! Feel the Illinoise! and Michigan, the multi-song suite BQE, the mediative Christian folk record Seven Swans, and 2010's experimental avant electro folks opus Age of Adz. But it turns out that once a year, Stevens' turns into a Christmas-obsessed man child, likely to wake his parents up at 2 a.m. to open presents.
To put it bluntly, the show was magical, even considering its flaws. And there were plenty.
Flubbed up lyrics to some of his more famous works? Check. Laughing in the middle of serious hymns? Double check. A whiny, Sarah Silverman-sounding sidekick? Yeah, but it all sort of added to the charm. Tucson saw "Serious Sufjan" with his guard down, simply singing the Christmas carols that were spun from the Wheel of Christmas and a selection of his favorite Christian hymns and originals during an impressive 30-song evening spanning two hours.
Stevens put his spin on holiday classics, incorporating electronic elements into "Joy to the World," but kept things simple on "Jingle Bells" and "Christmastime This Year," which gave the crowd the opportunity to utilize the songbooks handed out at the beginning of the evening. (Side note: If you think you know the lyrics to any Christmas carol from start to finish, you're wrong. There was plenty of mumbling and scrambling for the lyrics booklet during each song.) More excitable crowd members were brought up on stage to spin the wheel, with sidekick Rosie Thomas making up brief mini biographies for each participant along the way. ("She loves skirts!" "She's Sufjan Stevens' fiancé!")
The night just got weirder as it went along, and I couldn't help but think that someone walking in late might have been a little wary of joining in. It started out mellow, and slowly digressed into unicorn worship. Stevens original "I'm a Christmas Unicorn" was the peak of the night, the theme of the evening, and one of the most bizarre performances I've ever seen. Previously dressed in a Rolling Stones t-shirt, jeans with garland fixed to the backs of his sleeves and sides, "I'm a Christmas Unicorn" turned Sufjan into just that -- a unicorn complete with a painted bike helmet, horn, and costume made from long balloons attached to the shoulders. It bordered the line between art and "I'm a quirky, unique special snowflake."
Though, you have to hand it to Sufjan and his band of snowmen, nuns, skeletons and hot dogs. The outlandish display did something I didn't think was going to happen for me this year -- it brought out my Christmas spirit.
Personal Bias: Put bluntly, I'm a huge fan of Stevens, especially the complex and theatrical work on Come On! Feel the Illinoise!
The crowd: Bet you could guess.
Sufjan Stevens set list: (Unsure about this one) Put the Lights on the Tree How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee? Do You Hear What I Hear? Silver & Gold Joy to the World (transitioning into snipet of Impossible Soul) Holly Jolly Christmas Jingle Bells Auld Lang Syme Sleigh Ride For the Windows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended Sister Winter Ding-A-Ling-A-Ring-A-Ling Mr. Frosty Man Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance! The Child With the Star on His Head Christmastime This Year We Need a Little Christmas Silent Night Santa Claus is Coming to Town O Holy Night That Was the Worst Christmas Ever! Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing Christmas Unicorn I'll be Home for Christmas Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois John Wayne Gacy, Jr. Casimir Pulaski Day Come On! Feel the Illinoise!
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.