October 3, 2006

That “Indefinable Thing”

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With costume wings and a feathered mask, Sufjan Stevens took the stage last Saturday in Manhattan. Against a background of projected clouds and an ensemble of musicians in butterfly wings, Stevens led the overture to his second of three sold out performances in Town Hall. This particular performance displayed his trademark flair for multi-tasking, as he rotated through piano, guitar, cowbell, banjo and slide projector. Although the show had its imperfections, it managed to illustrate the power of musical craftsmanship paired with great enthusiasm.

In spite of Stevens’ obvious planning, the show was technically flawed with an inappropriate format for the presentation of his music. On guitar, Stevens’ performance was unpredictable. He shifted between accuracy and clumsiness, which was a disappointing development for an artist so well known for his proficiency on multiple instruments. The atmosphere was that of a symphony rather than a casual concert. In such a formal context, the connection between artist and audience was less palpable than it would have been otherwise. To present his folk-pop music like a symphony is an ambitious move, and this time, it took away from the performance.

Even in such a stiff context, the talent was unmistakable. Stevens’ vocals were soft but penetrating. Shara Worden sang airy back-up vocals, which provided a flawlessly blended harmony. Their voices against the backdrop of an orchestra possessed a polished quality that only talent can justify.

Towards the end of the set, Stevens performed an unreleased song, entitled “Majesty Snowbird.” Lasting over nine minutes, it was epic. Stevens told the audience, “This song has been the theme of this tour. This melody has been in my head for 10 years.” It was a swelling melody that grew grander with each minute.

Another highlight of the show was the performance of “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us.” Stevens introduced it with a nostalgic childhood story of a “predatory wasp.” It began promising, but towards its climax, the sound malfunctioned and an enormous foghorn sound pierced the venue. Stevens had to stop playing while crewmembers fixed the sound, but he handled the awkward situation with ease and a little humor. “That was the sound of the predatory wasp,” he responded casually, easing the tension in the room and showing off an easy-going personality. After a few minutes, Stevens continued the song where he’d left off and ended it like it had never been interrupted.

There were definitely some glitches in the performance, but it did not lack in enthusiasm. Through songs like “The Great God Bird,” Stevens communicated his appreciation for nature. With his performances of “Chicago” and “Detroit, Lift Your Weary Head!” he shared his appreciation for the manmade world. The combination bared his fascination with the dichotomy between the grandeur of nature and the grandeur of man-kind. This adoration of human life and natural life is an inspiring outlook that shines through both the lyrics of his music and their presentation. This is not something he achieved with props and witty commentary. It’s something that he had long before stepping foot on stage. Stevens could have picked a warmer format for the show, but he could not have manufactured his contagious zeal for life and music.