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Last Night: Sufjan Stevens at McFarlin Auditorium

Sufjan Stevens
McFarlin Auditorium
October 21, 2010

Better Than: The times my parents would drag me to McFarlin Auditorium to watch ballet.

Sufjan Stevens had his work cut out for him on Wednesday night at SMU's McFarlin Auditorium: He had the daunting task of convincing everyone in the room--himself included--that he's more than just a guy with a banjo and some folk songs.

The direction that his music has taken on his new album, The Age Of Adz, is shockingly different from his previous soft spoken, folk-driven efforts. It finds Stevens sharing hip-hop/electronic-based songs about heartache, recovery, and the apocalypse where happy songs about Midwestern states used to be.

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And while this live performance probably made Steven's new musical direction more feasible to fans who were still on the fence, it also exposed some of its faults.

This much is for certain, though: These new songs aren't easy to play--at least not according to the look on Stevens' face for most of the show. At this point in his career, his body of work is quite extensive, and there were a few times when he stumbled over lyrics, guitar chords, and melodies.

But with the help of his expert 11-piece backing band, which included two drummers and a trombone section, those moments were hardly noticeable. 

On full display was the grandeur of his song arrangements, the dynamics of which ranged from whisper soft to thundering loud. One moment, Stevens would lightly pluck the strings on an acoustic guitar, and the next he would dance to a synthed-out break beat. He made light of the variety, too, describing it as "Andrew Lloyd Webber meets Grease meets Tron meets Sesame Street--fun for the whole family."

But not everything went over without a hitch. 

Things got a little indulgent. The new tracks featured polyrhythms, key changes, halfway-choreographed dance moves, all of which hung like ornaments on an over-decorated Christmas tree. Thankfully, those moments came and went quickly, as Stevens was concentrated on singing and playing every note perfectly.

Highlights of the show included "Seven Swans," the first song of the concert and the only one that featured Stevens with a banjo. On "Too Much," one of The Age Of Adz early singles, the band was tight as they mixed in heavy electronics with rich orchestration. "Impossible Soul," the show's epic 25-minute apocalyptic climax, ended as Stevens won the crowd over by doing an awesome in-the-moment freestyle dance on the stage's catwalk while singing through a vocoder.

With this, Stevens had made believers out of nearly everyone in the audience. And he came back out for a crowd-pleasing encore of favorites from Illinois and Seven Swans. A beautiful rendition of "Casimir Pulaski Day" led into "The Dress Looks Nice On You," which ended the concert and sent everyone home satisfied.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias: I've heard great things about seeing Sufjan Stevens in concert. Can't say that I was blown away by the entire thing, but there were definitely some beautiful moments amidst the chaos.

Random Sidenote: As expected at a seated show, there's always going to be that guy who accidentally skipped ahead 20 rows and has landed squarely in your seat.

By The Way: There needs to be more concerts at McFarlin Auditorium. It's a great place to see a show.

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