Sufjan Stevens, My Brightest Diamond
The Paramount, Seattle
October 15, 2006
I am perpetually jealous of all the New Yorkers who get to see any and every band on a weekly basis, while we here in the far off northwest corner of the country get shafted, tour after tour after tour. And no I am not talking about Justin Timberlake’s recent blind eye to our fair city. There are only a small few of bands who I might consider moving somewhere if only in order to see them more often, or at all for that matter. Offhand, moving to Chicago in order to drop in on Jason Molina sounds enticing, and moving to New York for Sufjan sounds pretty sweet now that I think about it. On Sunday though, Seattlites had reason to rejoice, as no moving was necessary for Sufjan’s third (I think) long trek to the shores of Puget Sound to headline at The Paramount.
Opening for Sufjan, was long-time Sufjan backup singer/instrumentalist Shara Worden’s band, My Brightest Diamond. She has been recently covered quite a bit by the New York blogs who all have given her glowing reviews. From the beginning I was rather skeptical though. The songs I was able to get a hold of didn’t grab my attention immediately and I was afraid of another Bell Orchestre debacle, similar to the one I had around this time a year ago with the Arcade Fire. Don’t get me wrong, I love violins and other stringed instruments of that ilk, especially in modern rock music, but I wasn’t impressed with The Bell Orchestre (and even less impressed with Wolf Parade who came on after, but that story is for another review). After hearing from a friend who went to the Portland show a few days earlier that My Brighest Diamond was dissapointing, I started to dispare. In this case though I wanted to be proven wrong because I really do love the Sufjan crowd so very much.
From the beginning Worden did an excellent job of projecting her energy; this was the final show of the tour and it appeared as though she was determined to go out with style. Much of her performance was draped in a dark, almost foreboding light. Often she was sitting at the grand piano in the middle of the stage, but she did sing a few with guitar in hand. I must say that while this isn’t the music I would just put on at any moment, her peformance was stunning, fun, and like nothing I had heard before. She did a good enough job that I will be buying her record the next time I stop down to Easy Street and ponder her talent further.
Previously having seen Stevens on his Michigan Militia tour and being totally mindfucked by how good they were, any opportunity to see him and his ever changing backing band (or more properly “orchestra”) is not to be missed. We were tirelessly hoping that the lower-48-states-shaped-body electric guitar that he had at Sasquatch would make an appearance but, alas, it was not to be as he simply stuck to piano, banjo and acoustic guitar for the duration. His erratic and entirely unpredictable soloing on electric is a sight to see, but probably didn’t fit the mood of this tour. Sorry. Tangent. Anyway. The anticipation of Sufjan’s appearance is palpable in large sit down theatre, with a well earned following he has among seemingly the young and old, most of whom are only just being exposed to him live for the first time. After the first few songs I heard a teenager behind us in a voice of utter shock say “This is awesome.”
Song choice was chronilogically wide ranging and energetically crowd pleasing all at the same time. Sufjan seems to let his songs grow and gain instrumental girth so that when you encounter them live, they are an entirely different song from their original recorded version, some unrecognizable until the lyrics kick in. Highlights of the night were “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” with Sufjan at the acoustic guitar, “Seven Swans” with him slinging the banjo, and his new winter-slash-Christmas-Epic “Majesty Snowbird” which featured Sufjan masterfully handling the ivory keys on a gigantic grand piano for near on ten minutes. The suprise song of the night, which he let us know was keeping in with his bird theme, would be to play his NPR commissioned song, “Lord God Bird,” about a bird no one has seen in a long time but they think they have recordings of its skawking. This bird theme also included the entire band dressed in paper wings, for the entirety of the performance.
I talked recently about the authenticity of music, specifically in reference to the lo-fi setup of the Cold War Kids and how they still manage to sound big live. Sufjan takes authenticity to a whole ‘nother level, with large band arrangements. Let us examine the band for a moment shall we? Three horns, between three and five violinists who sometimes switch to other instruments depending on the song, a drummer, two cellists, an electric guitar player, and multi instrumentalist Shara Worden, of the aformentioned My Brightest Diamond. With Sufjan himself included in the number on stage there are 14 people all playing instruments.
Managing this kind of complexity is doing the hard but rewarding work of arranging music that most producers only do on computers these days. That sort of work leads to the kind of credibility as an artist and musician that is impossible to garner otherwise because the music has become a piece of art, of live interactive art, and more than just another bunch of garage hobbyists in a tavern fumbling their part out from their limited bag of tricks.* In this attentive setting, each song becomes a dynamic, changing, and growing thing, to be molded as time goes on, to be played solemnly when Sufjan feels solemn, to be sad when Sufjan is feeling tearful, or to be full of life when Sufjan is happy.
For this outing, everyone seemed to be quite happy, and it translated into an inspired performance all around where no one left dissapointed. No doubt some of their good humor was due to this being the final show of the tour. So too was it the last show of Worden’s tenure as a Sufjan player. With her gone, in addition to Katrina Kearns (who I have to mention that without her backup voice, was the one thing sorely missing from this show), the original backup singing women from the Michigan tour are now gone. I was however impressed with the woman violinist who was playing and singing at the same time.
My final thoughts are simply that there are few gentlemen out there who exhibit the musicality, showmanship, seriousness and humor so well as Sufjan. Between his endearing stories about his oversized fictional Predatory Bird-Wasps (which was also prominently featured due to it’s remote relationship to the bird theme), his absolutely beautifully genuine moment of appreciation for Worden before her departure, and his ability to have fun seemingly at all moments, Sufjan’s attitude and Sufjan himself are now the new blueprint for “cool.” Who else can distribute inflatable Superman and Santa dolls throughout the show and not be questioned for what they were thinking? Only Sufjan.
*For the record I am one such garage hobbyist I am lambasting so harshly.