Friday, October 15th, 2010
Sufjan Stevens and DM Stith at Massey Hall in Toronto
Frank YangSufjan Stevens doesn’t make it easy. In the five years since his breakthrough Illinois album, he’s managed to be quite prolific without actually crafting a proper follow-up, instead releasing collections of outtakes, rerecording old records, compiling Christmas gifts and staging multimedia odes on expressways. The only sign he was working on something weightier was a surprise club tour last year that allowed he and his band to jam out new material alongside old favourites, but some of those songs seemed so clearly in the sketch phase that it was impossible to guess when it might see the light of day in finished form.
As it turned out, it wasn’t that much longer at all, relatively speaking. In early August, a massive theatre-scale tour was announced – certainly implying that there’d be some new material to tour behind – and a couple weeks later the 60-minute, EP in semantics only All Delighted People was released digitally and a week after that, it was announced that his next album, The Age Of Adz, would be out in October to coincide with the start of the tour. Between the two releases, Stevens answered the burning question of whether Stevens would be exploring his folk, pop, electronic, orchestral or theatrical fancies this time out with a resounding “yes”. Dense, epic and random, Adz finds Stevens trying to articulate that most fundamental theme of pop music – love – and finding it as incomprehensible and inexpressible a task as trying to illustrate the origins of the universe with silly string, but not for lack of trying. To that end, he pulls together pretty much every trick and tool in his formidable musical repertoire together and constructing a Frankenstein’s monster of song that shouldn’t work – at all – but still somehow moves with an unreal grace.
This, however, didn’t become clear until Wednesday night at Massey Hall in Toronto. The second date of the tour came just one day after the record’s release and even with the extra bit of lead time allowed to the music press, being asked to try and absorb and comprehend well over two hours of new and unprecedented Sufjan Stevens material in such a short amount of time was nigh-impossible. I can’t imagine how it would have been for everyone else in attendance, many of whom had bought their tickets before they even knew that Adz existed let alone the fact that it would be almost exclusively what they’d be hearing. A leap of faith, to be sure, but then if there’s something that Stevens and his followers know about, it’s faith.
DM Stith continued the Sufjan trend of having labelmates and bandmates open up his shows – certainly it makes touring logistics easier. Stith, however, didn’t give himself much of a chance to make a strong impression with just a four-song set. You were able to discern that he traded in looped, rickety folk that built off his rich, raspy voice – it may not have been novel in concept, but was still impressive when executed well.
The spareness of Stith’s set would be a thing of distant memory by the stroke of 9, as Stevens and his band took the stage. Though his songs are often simple things at their core, just as affecting in a solo setting, Stevens has always preferred to have the live experience err on the side of excess and this time out was no exception – he was surrounded by 10 additional musicians including a pair of backup singers/dancer/rhythmic gymnasts, two drummers, two keyboardists and a horn section in addition to guitar and bass. With that sort of setup, you don’t go small and setting the tone for the evening was the ten-minute opus “All Delighted People”, a highlight of even in rough form at the Lee’s Palace show a year earlier and now a fully-formed piece of musical theatre.
Under massive, cosmically-themed projections inspired by the artwork of American artist Royal Robertson, the next two hours would be a feast of overstimulation for the eyes and ears, elaborately and tightly choreographed yet still retaining a homespun charm, with the musicians swapping instruments while trying to navigate the on-stage clutter. Live, the songs from People and Adz felt much more in synch with each other, more obviously interrelated and with the common thematic thread tying them together making a much greater impression than the disparate sounds and styles that sometimes pushed them apart. If Stevens’ intention was to create a sense of journeying into mystery, with all the excitement, anxiety, disorientation and determination that might go along with that, and in the process make the mind-bendingness of his new record make sense, he succeeded in no uncertain terms.
Nowhere was that clearer than the centerpiece of the show – and of Age Of Adz – the beyond-grandiose song suite dubbed “Impossible Soul”. Shifting through various styles and documenting, in a sense, the various facets of love, it ran a full 26 minutes including, spastic atonal guitar solos, autotuned vocal passages and a hipster dance party crescendo (with Stevens busting some moves – one girl in the front row tried to join in but was told to sit back down by security) before closing with a heart-breaking acoustic denouement that left you breathless, bewildered and agape. It’s a lot to take on record but live, it was overwhelming in the very best sense and encapsulated the contrast of confidence and self-consciousness, the earnestness dusted with irony that Stevens does so well. And truly, it could have ended there – though the audience had just sat through over 100 minutes of mostly unfamiliar songs, many of which were officially only about 24 hours old, they had done so without a second of complaint, content simply to be taken wherever Stevens would lead them. But perhaps by way of thanks, Stevens was able to shift his headspace sufficiently to offer some selections from Illinois – “Chicago” to close the main set and then, for the solo encore, “Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” on piano and chillingly gorgeous “John Wayne Gacy, Jr” that had Stevens’ angelic voice echoing through every corner of Massey Hall and sent the sold out house out into the streets in a sweet, heady daze.
Do I need to mention how lucky I feel to have been able to see two amazing shows in the same amazing venue over the course of…. what, 27 hours? Amazing. Music, you are wonderful.
eye, Exclaim, The Toronto Star, Panic Manual and The Globe & Mail also have reviews of the show and eye, The Irish Times, Drowned In Sound, The Chicago Tribune and The Quietus all have interviews with Sufjan.
Photos: Sufjan Stevens, DM Stith @ Massey Hall – October 13, 2010
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “Too Much”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “I Walked”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “Movement VI—Isorhythmic Night Dance With Interchanges”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “The Henney Buggy Band”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “Casimir Pulaski Day”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “Sister”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “Holland”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “Year Of The Dog”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “Year Of The Tiger”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “Demetrius”
MP3: Sufjan Stevens – “A Winner Needs A Wand”
MP3: DM Stith – “I Heart Wig”
MP3: DM Stith – “Pigs”
MP3: DM Stith – “BMB” (alternate version)
MP3: DM Stith – “Pity Dance”
MP3: DM Stith – “Just Once”
MP3: DM Stith – “Thanksgiving Moon” (demo)
MP3: DM Stith – “BMB” (demo)
Video: DM Stith – “Pity Dance”
Video: DM Stith – “BMB”
Video: DM Stith – “Isaac’s Song”
MySpace: Sufjan Stevens
MySpace: DM Stith
NOW talks to Lissie, who is now in no condition to talk to anyone. Under doctor’s orders, she has had to postone at least a week’s worth of dates – including next Tuesday’s show at the El Mocambo. Make-up dates for the new year will be announced shortly. This makes four shows that have been cancelled on me in the last month – not quite an epidemic but still some kind of record.