At the first of three sold-out shows at The Town Hall, Sufjan Stevens demonstrated that a large band performing in a mid-sized hall can still provide the type of intimate performance usually reserved for small clubs. Stevens was accompanied by a large string section and three horns, in addition to the more traditional guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards that are usually found at a rock and roll show.
To call this music rock and roll, however, is somewhat misleading. There are elements of rock in the distorted electric guitars of some songs, like the brilliant new epic “Majestic Snowbird,” and “The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” but those same songs also include folk-like acoustic guitar segments. There is something like Steve Reich minimalism in some songs. At any given moment you might hear jazz, or electronica, or Americana, or classical influences. You often hear all of these same elements within the same song. On occasion you’ll be reminded of the music of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. It’s hard to know what to call this music, so the best thing you can do is to not worry about it. You simply sit back in your seat, as I did, and let it wash over you. Suddenly, you notice that you have a big smile on your face, and you realize that it’s been there for a long time.
The evening featured a number of songs from Steven’s brilliant 2005 album, Illinoise, including the aforementioned tribute to the Man of Steel, during which inflatable Supermen were tossed into the audience. Highlights from that album also included “Chicago,” “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us” and “Casimir Pulaski Day.” The inflatable theme continued as blow-up Santas were released during “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!” The Brooklyn resident also paid homage to his home state with “Say Yes! To Michigan!” from his album Greetings From Michigan—The Great Lake State.
The young band, closer to an orchestra really, was first rate. Especially noteworthy were the beautiful background vocals by Shara Worden, whose voice is a natural fit with that of Stevens. The production, including a video screen, was on the low- tech side, but effective nonetheless. Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Stevens and his entire band wore butterfly wings for their entire set. Make of that what you will. Sufjan Stevens has stated his intention to do an album for each state in the union. It’s a lofty goal. There’s no way to tell if he’ll get there, but it will certainly be fascinating to hear the music that he produces on his journey.
In addition to her duties as background singer and keyboard player for Stevens, Shara Worden opened the show in the guise of her alter-ego “My Brightest Diamond.” Her music is very different, and yet like her voice, it was an excellent fit with that of the headliner. The classically trained vocalist has a wonderful voice that may remind you of Bjork, and her songs sometimes bring to mind the more ethereal side of Joni Mitchell. There is a darkness that runs deep. She used her string quartet accompaniment to great advantage, especially when she coupled the sweet strings with the growl of her electric guitar playing.
Worden won’t be opening shows for too much longer. Her album Bring Me The Workhorse will no doubt gain her a wider audience. I hope that she will continue her collaboration with Stevens though. There’s something wonderful going on there.