Few musicians are as consumed by their own mortality, and that of loved ones, as Sufjan Stevens. Even less are adept at the sleight of hand of transforming these feelings and insecurities into complex, multifaceted analyses of human nature, expressing these fears through music as efficiently as in lyrics.
On a sweltering Friday night at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Stevens and his band played a show to remind us that it’s important to crack a smile every once in a while, even in these troubled times.
If last year’s tour of his latest, critically acclaimed album Carrie and Lowell was rooted in moments of anger, bargaining, and depression, it seems that Stevens has moved squarely into the fifth stage of grief: acceptance. I had braced myself for a repeat of the melancholy, mainly acoustic performance at D.A.R. Constitution Hall, which had the audience in tears by the end of the first song (“Death With Dignity”) and held us there all night. That concern was quickly put to rest by the neon jumpsuits worn by Stevens and his 10-piece accompanying band – outfits seemingly inspired by hi-liters, Lisa Frank, and Mardi Gras.
This was a celebration of life – of its ups and downs and challenges – as over the top as anything set to stage since the last Polyphonic Spree tour. Flanked by three back-up vocalists cum-interpretive-dancers, Sufjan and his band put on a raucous and emotionally charged performance. The majority of the set list was pulled from 2010’s electronic-laden album Age of Adz, a record where Stevens grapples with mental illness, hopelessness, and self-care in a deeply personal manner. This album, unique in Stevens’ discography for its heavy use of synthesizers, dissonance, and elements approaching musique-concrète, served as the sonic palette for the evening – lively, cacophonous, manic, and underpinned by drum machines. Stevens himself was engaged and chatty, sharing quips and asides with the audience throughout.
The high-point of the evening was an extended rendition of the closing track from Adz, the three part suite “Impossible Soul.” Over twenty-five minutes as a studio version, this live performance extended to close to thirty and featured psychedelic visual accompaniment, multiple costume changes for Stevens and his band (including his operation of a mylar balloon wizard/golem type of thing), and finally, an explosive technicolor finale of brightly colored balloon vests and a back row of day-glo inflatable waving men.
“I guess I sing a lot about death,” Stevens admitted with a wolfish grin, to great laughter from an audience also in on the joke. As he prepared for an encore rendition of one of his biggest hits, “Casimir Pulaski Day,” Stevens looked happy and relaxed, catharsis seemingly achieved.
Photos by Scott Suchman, courtesy of Wolf Trap.