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Monday, June 8, 2015

Sufjan Stevens Plays The Fox, Shares Bacteria with a Stranger

Posted By on Mon, Jun 8, 2015 at 9:39 AM

click to enlarge img_4132.jpg
Sufjan Stevens
Helado Negro

June 5, 2015
The Fox, Oakland


Better Than: Seeing a gas station across from the Fox offering $2.78/gallon for gas and getting pretty excited until get closer and realize part of the neon on the number is just broken and it’s actually $3.78.

Sufjan Stevens is halfway through his set Friday night at the Fox Theater in Oakland when he decides to speak for the first time. “I’m not allowed to talk before I wear the green hat,” he explains, pointing to the tarnished baseball cap he’s just put on.

Finally empowered to address his adoring crowd, a group that has spent the first 11 songs of the evening in silent rapture, Sufjan offers a slipstream take on a number of subjects. They include the infinite forms that grief can take, a childhood addiction to Twizzlers brought about by the death of his pet rat Mr. Bossypants, and the joy of New Orleans funerals versus listening to the Cure alone. He leaps from one topic to the next with ease, never looking back or apologetic of an abrupt transition.

Sufjan’s banter is endearing, and perfectly encapsulates the immense variety of his music. There are entire orchestras in some tracks, while others have nothing more than a single guitar. There’s the electric dissonance Sufjan explored on 2010’s The Age of Adz, and the many albums’ worth of holiday music that he has steadily released since the beginning of his career. To see Sufjan on stage is somewhat of a shock, as it confirms the seemingly unbelievable – that it is but one man behind all this chaos. Still, on his latest album, Carrie & Lowell, the chaos is somewhat restrained, as Sufjan veers closer to the hushed ballad approach that was the signature of earlier work like 2004’s Seven Swans.

When the setup for the stage is finally revealed (opener Helado Negro played in front of the curtain), there is a relatively straight-forward arrangement of guitars, keyboards, and drums, with a few of the eclectic instruments that permeate so much of Sufjan’s music thrown in for good measure. As the band plays through the first several songs of the night, it becomes clear that Sufjan has taken the somber, fragile tracks from his latest album and turned them into loud, veracious pieces of live music. The sparse beauty of his melancholic voice is backed anew with a chorus of sound that gives new depth to the work. When he sings the refrain of “Fourth of July,” (“We’re all going to die, we’re all going to die”), those ominous words have never sounded more uplifting.

While no one is complaining about Sufjan’s decision to craft a setlist consisting mostly of material from Carrie & Lowell, there is a noticeable squeal of joy every time the crowd hears the opening chords of familiar songs like “The Dress Looks Nice on You” and “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Curiously, the final song of the night, “Chicago,” is given the same treatment as many of the songs from Carrie & Lowell, with Sufjan reworking it to be a much more sparse, brooding affair then the beloved and uplifting studio version. And yet, like everything else played across the evening, it works wonderfully.

Taking a rare breather between songs late in his set, Sufjan tells the crowd that if he were to live on the West Coast, he would probably live in Oakland. “You guys have so many resale shops,” he continues, a term that turns out to mean thrift stores. He explains that the Michigan T-shirt he’s wearing was purchased at a local Salvation Army earlier that day. “I didn’t wash it before I put it on. Now I’m sweating, and I can smell the last person who wore this shirt’s B.O. It’s crazy to have like this piece of someone else’s life, to share bacteria with a stranger I’ll never know.”

While perhaps a tad gross, his thought is genuine, and it speaks to something that quickly becomes clear during the course of the evening: these fans will follow Sufjan anywhere. They’ve embraced him as he leapfrogged across genres, created themed albums about specific U.S. states, went on tour to play exclusively Christmas music, and much, much more. His fans are thrilled for the chance each and every time. They don’t even ask for the songs they love to be played the way they remember them. In fact, all they seem to expect is a chance to hear the man behind it all lend them a small piece of his life every now and then, even if it’s only for two hours, and pre-worn, and perhaps a little smelly.

Critic’s Notebook:

- The merchandise booth was selling many collectible Sufjan vinyl records, including the coveted (and allegedly sold out) clear vinyl edition of Carrie & Lowell. Nice touch to save some stock of these in-demand releases for the fans.

- Outside the Fox, Oakland’s First Friday celebration was taking over Telegraph Avenue, which made the elusive search for parking quite the challenge. Be warned, concertgoers.

- The setup for the performance was fully seated, with chairs set up across the floor and black curtains separating the orchestra level from the main foyer. The bars to the sides of the pit were also closed. These choices in part lead to a magically quiet and attentive audience throughout the evening.

Setlist:

1. Death with Dignity
2. Should Have Known Better
3. Drawn to the Blood
4. All of Me Wants All of You
5. Eugene
6. John My Beloved
7. The Only Thing
8. Fourth of July
9. No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
10. Carrie & Lowell
11. The Owl and the Tanager
12. In the Devil's Territory
13. For The Widows In Paradise; For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti
14. Heirloom
15. The Dress Looks Nice on You
16. Futile Devices
17. To Be Alone With You
18. Blue Bucket of Gold

Encore:

19. Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
20. Casimir Pulaski Day
21. The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!
22. Chicago

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About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Bio:
Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.

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