Besides liking the album Seven Swans and (like everyone) loving the album Illinois by Sufjan Stevens, I walked into his Knoxville, TN performance really hoping for something to believe in. I find the remainder of his catalog slightly lovable, but predictable, except for his newest, The Age of Adz, which is unpredictable, but entirely unlovable. Those things, and the semi-pretentious and phoned in (though admittedly limited) performances of his that I’ve caught, made it all the more intriguing when some of my most trusted music friends unanimously suggested that his current show must be seen.
When Sufjan took the stage in front of the curtain, dressed like his sleepy, understated normal self, and manning a little banjo/synth station, I felt hope slip away. Even as he began his first selection, my relief at hearing that it was from Swans (and not the awful Adz) was eclipsed by my disappointment that it seemed to be a regular old sad and precious night with our sad and precious Sufjan (except that he had some weird green strips of tape around his arm).
If you had told me then that in 10 seconds I was going to get my world turned upside down by the weirdest musical magic show of my life, I would’ve laughed at you.
90 minutes later, Knoxville and I stumbled back out into newly chilly downtown streets, shocked and mesmerized. So much of the show carries such an air of surprise and “is this really happening?” that I hesitate to say more about the specifics of the presentation, besides the familiar: you have to see it.
I will say that I was the first, and surely one of the worst, haters of The Age of Adz. Sufjan even clearly noted, first thing, that the show would be almost entirely from the new album and that ticketholders were welcome to a refund. And shortly after that disclaimer, Stevens and company brought the album to bright, dynamic, powerful life and never turned back. They even did a few of the new songs WITHOUT the AoA sound experiments, showing the songs’ traditional music strength. And they were strong.
Without spoiling any of the show’s surprise deliveries, I will stop this gush by saying that the most impressive thing about this show is that it spends the first half bending your mind with its bizarre and technicolor chaos, and the other half bending the same mind into a totally new shape by revealing that what seemed to be chaos is actually beautifully and intricately planned (complete with emotionally affecting, stranger than fiction source material).The journey from “what just happened?!” to “THAT JUST HAPPENED” was near perfect.
And for our trust, we were rewarded at the end with 4 beloved selections from Swans and Illinois. The finale, a totally acoustic solo version of masterpiece “John Wayne Gacy, Jr”, using only the acoustics of the Bijou, was a devastating and breath-taking punctuation.
I still don’t care for Age of Adz very much, but I respect it more. If it was 10x better, it would still fail to catch up to the live experience. So instead of trying, it simply does what it’s supposed to do, in breaking Stevens out of his self-described “orchestrational rut”
…And without it, we wouldn’t have this magnificent show. Thanks Adz!
Photos: Lizzie Wright