Tuesday, February 6, 2007


I've heard four versions of Sufjan Stevens' "Chicago"--the original that appropriately debuted on Illinois and the acoustic, adult contemporary, and multi-personality disorder versions on the follow-up The Avalanche. But I believe tonight I heard the best version: Live at the Kennedy Center Millennium stage with members of the Opera House orchestra.

The Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser introduced Sufjan Stevens at the free show commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Millenium Stage as the biggest performer that the stage could brag (I guess, in ten years time). The orchestra sat to the left, Sufjan's band assembled at the right, and Sufjan sat in the middle on a stool in front of the piano.

Sufjan started in the fashion of a recital and sung whispery choir-boy vocals while playing the opening track, "Detroit". It was intimate and semi-private. The Orchestra contributed strings, woodwinds, and horns, and did everything but steal the show, most notably adding multiple dimensions later to "Chicago". The entire stage set in motion really enveloped the audience of mostly college students, and made the seats and silence appropriate. The variety of instruments emphasized the stylistic changes and complex structures of each song.

The Orchestra proved especially effective in juxtaposing the fullness of the music with the sweetness of Sufjan’s vocals by ceasing abruptly to leave Sufjan alone with the guitar or the piano and quiet vocals. The entire theatre was silent in awe. Other times the Orchestra created a smooth crescendo into a cacophonous roar with violin bows wildly deviating from their regularly linear path, piercing flute tremolos, and a horn freely making irregular bursts. Sufjan’s hands oscillated almost-violently along the entire length of the piano.

Sufjan was strangely captivating. He didn’t dance, or move all that much, except when he stood from his stool to play violent piano, or to switch instruments. Still, I felt like I was watching my brother starring in the school play. Of course I recognized the talent all over the stage, but I naturally focused on him and the sounds he was making. The quality of his vocals was perfect and real, as if he relied on the acoustics of a small room for amplification and not the sound system in a concert hall.

The on-stage set-up really showcased the versatility of Sufjan Stevens as a musician. The stage was balanced. There is difficulty in captivating an audience with just vocals and just one instrument (see: Church worship), and there is difficulty standing out on a stage with dozens of talented musicians. Sufjan conquered both.

At the end of each song, he humbly clapped for the rest of his stage members, and spoke minimally in order to utilize the entirety of the one-hour set. The audience stood clapping for a considerable amount of time, but no luck. No encore. I think it was the only time I ever really wanted one.

Just to note--at one point, I felt like I was ascending into heaven and there was a carnival in heaven and I was going to that carnival and the angels were singing and a giant jazzy Midwest indie band of angels was playing. YEAH!