April 27, 2004

There in a pinch, Sufjan pulls through on stage

Sometimes people talk about certain musicians and about being with them through good times and bad. Well, Sufjan Stevens was totally there for me when I took a major spill on Portobello Road. On October 24, 2003, he bore witness to my second flying experience in three months. Moments earlier, I had been inside the Rough Trade Records store in Notting Hill, and I was totally taken by the gorgeous song they had just put on—"Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)."

At the time I was obsessed with pianos. Not with playing them, just with their existence in songs. And banjos. But at that point I was just hearing the first track off Sufjan's then latest release Greetings From Michigan... on Sounds Familyre, and I didn't know that banjos would creep into so many of his tunes. That day I was struck by Stevens's fragile voice against the simple piano arrangements.

Walking back to the tube stop with my fabulously sturdy sports discman in my hand, and a chorus of bells blasting into ears left and right, thanks to Mr. Stevens, I attempted to pass between a husband and wife with their doggie. I was looking up, not looking down, and this prevented me from seeing a chunk of sidewalk that jutted upward. I tripped and flew several yards, skinning my right knee for round two. (Side note: round one was when I forgot about science, that is, when I ignored that a bike cannot get up on the curb by running straight into it.)

The British man helped me up and insisted that I wait a minute to see if I was OK. I was OK, completely—even though I had just created a badass horizontal slice in the only pair of corduroys I brought to London—because I was convinced that the music pouring in through the headphones was the best stuff I had heard in months.

So the stakes for Sufjan Stevens at Schuba's were set at the ceiling. I listened to Greetings From Michigan over and over again so many times that I was convinced everyone around me was walking in synch with its songs. They probably weren't. I had given the CD some rest since London, but I was open to Sufjan winning me over once more with material from Seven Swans—released a few months ago.

Denison Witmer kicked off the show at 10 p.m. with some encouraging words. He mentioned that Sufjan and Rosie Thomas were currently eating dinner, which would mean that they would have more energy for this show than the earlier 18-and-over show, which made me extremely happy that I would not be gypped.

In starting off the singer-songwriter triad for the evening, Denison heightened my expectations for Sufjan. A cuter-looking Elliott Smith clone, Philly's Denison most recently released Recovered on Fugitive Records and yes, it's a bunch of cover songs. For us, he covered Jackson Browne's "These Days," and, I admit, I liked his version far better than Nico's.

When Sub Pop's Rosie Thomas walked on stage, I knew why the crowd was 50-50 between Sufjan and Rosie fans. Her adorableness was conveyed right off the bat, as she drew attention to the fact that her keyboard was lacking its stand. Instead, each side of it was held up by a stack of three chairs. I was excited to be receiving my dose of pianos for the evening via Rosie since, ahem, someone else did not play the piano for me!

Rosie played songs off both her latest release Only With Laughter Can You Win, as well as her debut When We Were Small. She carried tunes like "Wedding Day" and "Red Rover" with sincerity and good humor, conveying emotion through her strong voice, and then this seriousness with joking in between songs. Denison accompanied her on guitar for a few tunes before she returned to the piano for some fake weather announcements that centered on "puffy, puffy clouds."

After he touched me, Sufjan started just before midnight. Even though it took until the next-to-last song of the show for him to emotionally touch me, he put his hand on my shoulder as he worked his way towards the stage. When the Asthmatic Kitty website described Sufjan as "a timid performer," they definitely weren't kidding. Considering the accolades heaped upon Michigan and the warmly received Seven Swans, I was surprised to see him so shaky as he started off his set. I figured that anyone who would so boldly take on a project like making a CD for each state would surely be kind of egotistical—not blissfully unaware of how every girl in the crowd was hanging on his every strum of the banjo.

He followed in the vein of Denison with a cover song, but his rendition of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" displayed a soft and seemingly passionless singing. He continued with a string of slow, quiet tunes, which brought attention mostly to his vocal limitations. In "Borderline," he invoked a bit of Madonna at the end, but mostly to save face for the times when he couldn't hit the high notes.

Thankfully, he whipped out the banjo, and the crowd's response made it clear that I wasn't alone in thinking that, up to then, he was sucking a lot more than I expected. Things picked up with "For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti," but as Randy Jackson would say, "It was ai'ght, but I'm still not feeling it, dawg." I wanted to feel it, but his indifferent presentation and flat singing made it hard. Whereas Rosie and Denison put themselves on the line lyrically—showing a bit of their own frailty—Sufjan seemed to hide behind his songs, and behind their settings. When the songs took on a more personal perspective, his blank stares forward and mechanical playing only gave off the sense that maybe he just wasn't feeling it during this particular performance.

Sufjan announced that Illinois was the next state on his album-making agenda, much to the crowd's excitement. Just as the concert was coming to a close, Sufjan started to divulge personal details related to the next song, "Chicago." When studying at Hope College in Michigan, he and his friends would take mini road trips down to the Windy City, "escaping all the miserable, simple, lonely things of Michigan." The song perfectly captures that excitement of a road trip with a boyfriend, or girlfriend, or just someone you have a crush on—the excitement of getting the hell out of there.

Sufjan sang, "All things go, all things go." He captured even how it could go wrong: "in my mind, in my mind, I made a lot of mistakes." At that point, I had totally fallen for him. And he had touched me. And then, per everyone's request, he played "Romulus." He had no reason to be ashamed by then. His repetitious lyrics had won us over.