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October 3, 2006

Sufjan Stevens entreats Chicago crowd to Feel the Illinoise at the Riviera

Sufjan Stevens was the man behind the mask last Tuesday night, his feathers flapping rhythmically with his every movement and his eyes remaining well hidden behind an elaborate, ornithologically-inspired costume. Stevens took the stage at Chicago’s Riviera, playing banjo, guitar, piano, and bass on the first four songs of his set. In doing so, he demonstrated his remarkable musical prowess.

The Michigan native was not all that talkative through the first few songs. The verbal drought ended when Stevens told the audience the amazing backstory to “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us.” The childhood anecdote describes a young Sufjan’s journey with a friend into the woods. They are startled by a gargantuan flying monster, which chases them back to camp. After a typically deadpan telling of the fantastic story, Sufjan delivered an interesting version of the song itself. As one might expect, the set was full of tracks from Illinoise, like “Jacksonville” and “They Are Night Zombies!!” The Chicago audience visibly appreciated their own involvement in the music—by playing mostly songs from that album, Sufjan allowed the crowd to feel connected directly to the music, in a cleverly personal gesture.

The stage contained a large projection screen with different images reminiscent of a Super 8 camera. The large and flamboyant framework of his music relies on many backing instruments, and many horns and strings encircled the singer, giving a beautifully orchestral feel to the set. The most powerful song of the set was “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” which documents the life of the serial killer. The audience rather tastefully listened in near silence during the chilling portrait of a neighborhood clown with a dark side.

The show did not include either of Stevens’s popular live staples, “The 50 States Song” or his rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Despite these omissions, the imaginative “The Great God Bird” lent uniqueness to the night. “Majesty Snowbird” was an epic theme for the current tour and explained, to some extent, the bird-like appearance of the musicians.

Much to the chagrin of my friend Rob, “Springfield or Bobby got a Shadfly Caught In his Hair,” off Stevens’s newest album The Avalanche, did not appear that evening. Predictably, Sufjan closed the night with “Chicago.” The song created a sudden euphoric spike in the crowd’s pleasure, as there was a collective sigh of relief—“Chicago” needed to happen, so when it did, the crowd rejoiced in response.

A two-song encore capped an evening that left me wanting more. Satisfaction breeds complacency, and I left the Riviera wanting to see him live again. Each song he performed that evening was executed magnificently. What songs would he pull out from his bag of tricks next time? I could only wait and listen. The man who first introduced Sufjan to us that night crystallized the originality of his music when he relayed a personal story about people who asked him who Sufjan sounded like, and what instruments he played. The man responded by saying “no one,” and “all of them.” That is Sufjan Stevens in the proverbial nutshell, and the show was indeed like no other I have ever been to.

At the very beginning of the show, my friend Augie turned to me and said, “That’s why I started playing banjo,” pointing to Sufjan, who was only yards away from us. That is evidence enough of the artist’s musical reach and unbelievable success. While he may be the most lasting, Sufjan Stevens is not my earliest banjo influence. As a card-carrying member of the Nickelodeon generation, the title of banjo legend for me will always belong to the incomparable Douglas Yancy Funnie. In my most creative daydreams, I imagine a 20-something singer/songwriter traveling from smoky bar to smoky bar. He has long since traded in his green vest and brown shorts for ripped jeans and a Ramones T-shirt, playing Beets covers like “Killer Tofu” and “I Need More Allowance” along with originals and the crowd favorite “Bangin’ On a Trash Can.” Is it really that far off? I don’t think so. With a good personality and even-keeled demeanor, Sufjan Stevens may just be Doug Funnie all grown up.