Sufjan Stevens – Pearl Street Night Club (Northampton, MA)
Sufjan Stevens has embarked on an ambitious musical journey as he attempts to record an album for every state in the union. His tour in support of his second step in that direction, Come On Feel The Illinoise, was just as bold.
As part of a powerful seven-piece band, all wearing matching University of Illinois cheerleader outfits — they even did several synchronized cheers to introduce songs — Stevens made his way through most of the sonically rich album, keeping fairly close to the recorded versions. That was surprising, given how idiosyncratic and dense the album can be at times.
But the band was up to the task during the 75-minute set. There were moments when the instrumentation swirled, pulling in brass, keyboards and even banjo to decorate the acoustic-based, enigmatic songs. These multi-tiered lead parts, almost always hauntingly melodic, lifted the tunes out of folk music, out of indie pop and into their own sphere.
Then there were the vocals. Stevens’ own lovably wobbly voice was weaker live than on album, but that was OK; most of the others in the band also sang. At times, they delivered parts in unison, giving the performance a show-tuney feel. Elsewhere, they broke off into delicate two-and-three-part harmonies that soared.
On “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders Part I: The Great Frontier/Part II: Come To Me Only With Playthings Now”, trumpet and trombone played off one another. A melodica added yet another instrumental voice over the chugging band. Later, on “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!”, the same type of gradual buildup was used; Stevens struggled a bit with his falsetto parts, but the three-part harmonies kicked in, rescuing it. By the end of the song, the band had progressed to a throbbing, chaotic wave of noise that swarmed over the crowd.
On “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”, a song that uses the story of the notorious serial killer as its peg, Stevens was almost whispering as he sang over a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. The gentle delivery, complete with sparse piano twinklings and lush background-vocal oohs, gave an eerie feel to the already spooky song.
The band took a similarly restrained approach to “Casimir Pulaski Day”, a song about losing a loved one to cancer. The banjo laid the acoustic foundation, but when the trumpet kicked in late in the song, the tone climbed into a sort of celebratory eulogy.