Thursday, November 25, 2004

Sufjan Stevens @ Black Cat, 11/25/04

The Black Cat (mainstage) is a firetrap refreshingly set in the "real downtown" of Zone 1 DC ... There's no good tequila behind the bar but the bathrooms are clean, the people who work there have their attitudes in check and there's plenty of space to sit and lean for us weary 40-somethings. My recommendation, though, if there ever is a fire, is to go behind the bar, drink some of their flavored vodka and then wrap a damp bar-rag around your face and climb over the bodies that will be crushed in front of the door - you might have a better chance than trying to get out with the stampede. In case you are worrying about my demophobia, this was my first show in 3 1/2 months (thanks to a close friend). I'm also telling myself I'm going to go see Bob Mould's show tonight and New Potato Caboose / Eddie from Ohio tomorrow night.

The warm-up is a bizarro world version of William Hung. Unlike Hung, he's handsome and if you like Van Morrison ripoffs, he can sing. Key difference is that his songbook is gooey crap while William Hung can at least pick decent covers. His name was Nicholai Dunger but we will call him Bizarro Hung. IF William Hung did his songs, it might be markedly better because at least it would be interesting - that's why its bizarro. We hates Bizarro Hung... hates, hates, hates... makes him stops and makes him stops writing like Gollum...

In contrast, Sufjan ("Soof-jhan") Stevens is an original and any buzz that was killed by Bizarro Hung was quickly freshened by his arrival on stage. His band (the
Michigan Militia) consists of two "utility" singers-bassists-banjoists- keyboards-guitars, himself (he also switched off frequently among instruments), a trumpet player and a drummer. The drummer starts off a marching band song and they rip into a song about visiting all the states. Everyone cheers when he gets to Washington although I think he's singing about the state of Washington. The way someone explained it to me at the bar later on was that this opening song is on the double LP (Michigan) but not on the CD but that's probably dubious. It was a great opening piece and got everyone's attention.

He then explained that he wanted the audience to imagine the club as a big tour bus and we were heading to Michigan - whereupon he played the tender "Flint" from the Michigan album. Other Michigan cuts were "Say Yes To Michigan" and he also did "Sister" which appears on Seven Swans but is also a Michigan song as his sister lives in Detroit. They get the audience to help on this one and the results were nice since the audience also gets to sing soft.

He introduced a new song from his album about Illinois - in this case about Chicago (but not about Chicago since part of is about his time spent sleeping in vans in New York City). This led into several songs from his Seven Swans. I did an odd version of the Star Spangled Banner, which he semi-apologized for since he said he realized people might think it was sarcastic (basically it's the lyrics to the Banner + some stuff about Christianity over a new melody)... the next song was something he introduced as his protest song ("All Good Naysayers Speak Up Or Forever Hold Your Peace"). The fat bald guy next to me kept on laughing as if he was in on a joke.

My take on Stevens is that you know how all the big arena classical rock bands had their "soft" songs ("wussy folk" as Scott Stereogum calls it) in the 70s and 80s? the ones where the audience would quiet down and maybe someone would pull out an acoustic guitar and the lighting would go all simple, perhaps just a single spotlight? Examples are "Dust in the Wind" (Kansas), "From the Beginning" (ELP), "And You and I..." (YES) ... Sufjan Stevens is the exact opposite. All his songs are those pretty "soft" songs... but without the grandiose orchestrations. That's not to say he isn't a classical rockhead. The band is playing from something that's been written down, the trumpet player was reading music, people actually follow dynamics and songs have complicated structures that would be jazz if he allowed for improvisation. You see him flinch when someone misses a note.

So you are thinking that if all his songs are the "soft" rock songs, that means he must have one loud fast song? And you would be correct. The closing number from his 2000 A Sun Came (available on i-Tunes) is "Supersexywoman" which he introduced by saying something like, "we journeyed through Michigan and this country, now its time to journey into my psyche"... eeeeasssh - TMI...... but it was nice to close on a fun and stupid song after so much poetry and cerebral music. His band came out and did a Broadway bow (which the fat guy thought was funny, too)

Sufjan did an encore, acoustic guitar only but I wasn't concentrating since I generally hate encores. I checked out the table. The Michigan album is on vinyl -- as a double album with five tracks not on the CD - yay for vinyl plus-ups! The Sevens Swans vinyl is beyootiful - album art the way its meant to be (for that matter so is Michigan) -- suitable for framing. Bizarro Hung has a t-shirt with this pretty face on it but nobody is buying. Me has schadenfreude and hopes next time we see Bizarro Hung he is panhandling outside so we can put our cigar butt in his cup.

The MP3s linked to above come from Sufjan's page on the Sounds Familyre website. Learn more about his work at his main website,

1 comment:

Jim H said...

More examples of Arena Rock "soft" rock songs:

"Living in the Past" - Jethro Tull
"My Aim is True" - Elvis Costello (the early years)
"Angie" - Rolling Stones (also "Waiting on a Friend", "Girl With Far Away Eyes")
"Going to California" - Led Zep

and lest we forget:
"Beth" - KISS

To their credit, the Who never had a soft rock song (yes, "Behind Blue Eyes" but it only starts out soft)... AC/DC were pretty good about not going soft, too. I can't think of a Cheap Trick slow song either... hmmm...