Published Oct 14, 2010Aside from three Illinois-era songs at its denouement, Sufjan Stevens's Massey Hall show stuck entirely to the singer-songwriter's latest efforts, The Age of Adz and the All Delighted People EP. Exiting the venue, a random punter observed, "It was pretty self-indulgent." Amending the thought with a murmuring about courage or something of the ilk, it turns out he didn't mean it derisively, though the quip could easily be interpreted that way, at least out of context.
That's the thing about Sufjan: context is of the utmost importance. Having just released a record of songs that has little to do with any U.S. states, his focus has shifted to new thematic concerns, from isolation and insanity to spaceships and Italian volcanoes, and his live show supports and reflects the change.
Brimming with spastic guitars, playful electro and towering percussion, the new cuts largely eschewed the left-field orchestral pop of his older work. Although, no less theatrical, they lent themselves well to Massey Hall's seats-and-vaulting-roofs setup. His tight ten-piece band — complete with two drummers, two 1960s sci-fi clad backup dancers/singers and an earnest brass section — didn't hurt either.
Plotted like a musical, the gig started grand, with the booming, increasingly urgent "All Delighted People." That jubilant bombast — writ in various forms —would define the night. Horn flourishes on "Age of Adz," big-bass faux drums and chaotic guitars on "I Walked," and writhing percussion on the expansively gorgeous "Vesuvius" kept things large.
Nevertheless, acoustic placeholders (i.e., "Heirloom," "Futile Devices" and "Enchanting Ghost") and homespun charm (i.e., wry pontification, out-of-synch dancing and Royal Robertson's artwork) supplied breathing room and quiet beauty. Still, the set highlight came not from plucking but from dancing.
Big, inherently dramatic and breathtakingly ambitious, the 25-minute song cycle "Impossible Soul" acted as an appropriately shambolic de facto finale. With striking trombones, AutoTune vocals, Diamond Rings-style dancing and kitchen-sink melodies, its comprehensiveness circumvented any need for clear contextualization.
Fittingly like Neil Young's Live at Massey Hall 1971, the shiny new set list introduced the converted to could-be classics, doing it with enough splendor and aplomb to make it enthralling. So what if it was a little self-indulgent.