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(Above: Roman Numerals fill in for the Guards at the RecordBar on the second night of the 2013 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: Sigur Ros pulled me away from covering the first day of MoTM, but I was at the RecordBar on Friday and the outdoor stage on Saturday (with a quick reprise back at the RecordBar).

Friday

In some unfortunate scheduling, Spirit is the Spirit, a Lawrence-based quintet, was forced to compete with Grizzly Bear. It’s too bad fans of laid-back, analog rock were forced to chose, because many Grizzly fans would likely appreciate Austen Malone’s easygoing, reassuring approach.Spirit’s 40-minute set recalled the earthier moments from the Band and the relaxed vibe of “Workingman’s Dead.” The quintet performed several songs from its new EP and was finally able to coax the sparse crowd to dance on the set-closing “Pillows.”

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Indie rock supergroup Divine Fits rock the Middle of the Map outdoor stage on Saturday.

Roman Numerals are technically a local band, but Friday’s abbreviated set felt more like a homecoming. The four-piece band was playing with drummer Pete LaPorte for the first time in five years and singer/guitarist William Smith had flown in from his home in New York City.

Stepping in at the last minute for the Guards, who called in sick, the Numerals delivered a gripping 30-minute preview of their set planned for Saturday on the outdoor stage.

The RecordBar crowd swelled considerably for the Numerals, but it didn’t approach feeling full until fans started appearing at the conclusion of Grizzly Bear’s set, in anticipation of Deerhoof.

By the time Deerhoof went onstage at midnight, the RecordBar had a line out the door. A packed house watched the avante-indie quartet make its Kansas City debut (although the band did open for the Flaming Lips mini-residency at Liberty Hall in Lawrence last summer).

Cross Sonic Youth with a Japanese game show and you’re in the ballpark of Deerhoof’s unique sound. The diminuitive Satomi Matsuzaki’s enchanting vocals served as a counterpoint to the chaos, while Greg Saunier’s drumming anchored the seemingly free-form songs.

The biggest responses during the 70-minute set came early for the catchy “Panda Panda Panda” and Flaming Lips’ drummer (and Lawrence resident) Kliph Scurlock’s surprise guest appearance behind the kit.

Saturday

Beautiful Bodies had no problem sustaining the momentum from Roman Numerals’ incredible set-closing cover of Joy Division’s “Transmission.”
Bodies singer Alicia Solombrino spent more time in the crowd than she did onstage. She wasn’t always visible, but it was easy to gauge where she was by the disproportionate amount of hands (and phones) in the air.

Fans further away found plenty to like from the five-piece band’s high energy, half-hour set. The parking lot hosting the outdoor stage was only a third full, but the balcony at nearby Buzzard Beach was packed.

Sandwiched between Beautiful Bodies’ grrl-power pop and Futurebirds’ alt-country, the Soft Reeds were a palate cleanser.

The quintet’s 30 minute set previewed material from an upcoming new album. Bursts of free jazz sax highlighted the opening number, and songs like “Finding Patterns” and “Moving in Time” recalled the nervous energy of the Talking Heads. The band also covered Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain.”

Fans missing Uncle Tupelo will have an instant friend in Futurebirds. The five-piece alt-country band from Athens, Ga. made an impressive KC debut.
Their too-short 50 minute set was grounded in the earthy jangle of three guitars and driven to the stratosphere by the cry of a pedal steel.
A cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” highlighted the band’s strengths, a perfect balance of smooth yet ragged. The one-two of “Wild Heart” and the anthemic “Yur Not Dead” closed the set on the highest moment of the day so far.

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The Futurebirds make their Kansas City debut at the 2013 Middle of the Map festival.

Divine Fits had its work cut out following Futurebirds. The supergroup comprised of members of Spoon, Wolf Parade and New Bomb Turks proved up to the task. The quartet performed all but one track from their sole LP during the one-hour set, with a new song, “Chained to Love” and a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.”

Both diversions blended well with the group’s sound: driving indie rock built over basic synth patterns. The material blossomed onstage gaining raw energy and losing the sterility of the recorded versions. Frontmen Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner alternated vocal and lead guitar duties. Two of the band’s most neurotic numbers, “What Gets You Alone” and “Shivers” also provided the night’s best moments.

It was hard not to miss the Beaumont Club throughout the weekend, the outdoor stage offered several benefits. Although capacity never rose more than two-thirds full, it offered much greater capacity. It also provided the opportunity to simultaneous enjoy great music and beautiful spring weather.

Tennis
It seemed no one wanted to leave the RecordBar after Making Movies. The venue was one-in, one-out well into Tennis’ set and the room didn’t start to thin until around 1 a.m.

The husband and wife duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley were augmented by a two-piece rhythm section for their 50-minute set. The band’s jangly indie pop and confessional, introspective lyrics made them seem like the cool aunt and uncle to Best Coast. Songs were filled with complex lyrics and romantic devotion typical of a married couple who met in a college philosophy course. The biggest responses went to “Petition” and “Origins.” The response to “Petition” was so great that Moore joked that know she knows how Taylor Swift feels.

The final notes had barely died before the house lights were thrown on and patrons were ordered out. Middle of the Map 2013 was officially over at the RecordBar.

Keep reading:

Review: Kanrocksas (Day 1)

Review: Mission of Burma at MoTM

Review: F*cked Up at MoTM

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(Above: The Flaming Lips get an assist from Deerhoof to cover King Crimson at the second show of their two-night stand at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kan. on June 22, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Standing in Liberty Hall during a sold-out Flaming Lips concert was like being inside a kaleidoscope. In fact, the overwhelming number of balloons, confetti and streamers made things a little claustrophobic.

The Oklahoma City rock band brought so much firepower to its two-night stand in Lawrence that the show opened with a disclaimer from frontman Wayne Coyne: Don’t stare at the strobe lights, and be cool when the space bubble rolls out.

The famous inflated see-through orb that Coyne inhabits and then rolls over the outstretched hands of the crowd came out during a cover of Pink Floyd’s “On the Run.” As Coyne rolled over the masses, it looked like he could have easily hopped into the balcony.

With a capacity of 1,200 people, the building seemed like a bandbox compared to the acres of festival grounds the Lips usually have to play in during summer festival seasons. A massive mirror ball hung so low over the stage it seemed like Coyne might be able to touch it. Late in the set he donned giant hands that shot lasers and pointed them at the ball, spraying light across the room.A giant LED screen filled the back of the stage and troupes of dancers dressed like Dorothy Gales buttressed the wings.

Fans got their chance to sing early. Favorites “Race for the Prize,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “She Don’t Use Jelly” and the slow campfire arrangement of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Part One)” all came out in the first half of the set. The second half displayed newer, more experimental material. It wasn’t as bubbly, but fans ate it up just the same.

Deerhoof: The four-piece experimental band’s carefully planned cacophony was balanced by singer Satomi Matsuzaki’s manic pixie singing and dancing. Lips drummer and Lawrence resident Kliph Scurlock joined the openers for two numbers, and the two bands joined forces for two songs during the Lips’ encore. Their first collaboration was a curveball –- a cover of Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country.” For the second number they went full-prog with a thunderous cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.”

The show was part of the 100th annniversary party for Liberty Hall. Seventh Street was blocked off south of the venue, between Massachusetts and New Hampshire streets. Vendors sold everything from beer and BBQ to T-shirts and cake. Families lined up around the bounce castle while groups performed on the stage at the other end of the block. A screen at the back of the stage broadcast a live feed of Lips show.

Setlist: Race for the Prize, She Don’t Use Jelly, The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power), On the Run (Pink Floyd cover), Worm Mountain, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Part One), Sea of Leaves, Drug Chant, The Ego’s Last Stand, What Is the Light?, The Observer. Encores: Going Up the Country, 21st Century Schizoid Man, Do You Realize?

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn’t So)”

Review: Flaming Lips New Year’s Freakout

Review: The Flaming Lips – “Christmas On Mars”

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(Above: Friday’s Kanrocksas headliner Eminem performs “Lighters” sans Bruno Mars.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record 

Note: For my coverage of the Kanrocksas music festival, I decided not to cover any band’s previously reviewed by The Daily Record. Visit the archives to read about the Arctic Monkeys, Black Keys, Flaming Lips, Flogging Molly and Girl Talk. Stay tuned for Kanrocksas Day 2 early next week.

The Joy Formidable

The crowd assembled for this Welsh-trio likely would have been much larger if they weren’t going head-to-head with Fitz and the Tantrums. As it was, the crowd wasn’t much bigger than what would pack the Granada Theater in Lawrence, but judging by facial expressions as the audience dispersed most people left impressed.

Much of the band’s 40-minute set drew from “The Big Roar,” the critically praised album released earlier this year. Songs performed included “Cradle,” “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade” and the non-album single “Greyhounds in the Slips.”

Lead singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan threw herself into the set-closing “Whirring,” hurling herself at the mic as she sang enthusiastically. Bryan later conjured images of Jimi Hendrix at Monteray when she threw her guitar on the ground and knelt over it to coax out some otherworldly sounds. Drummer Matt Thomas punctuated the noise with double-pedal rolls on the bass drum.

D12

Eminem’s Detroit cronies took the stage 20 minutes late – not bad by rap standards, but kind of a big deal when your allotted time is barely over half an hour.

Rapping over what sounded like their own commercial CDs – Eminem’s backing vocals were clearly audible despite his absence – the quartet employed what I like to call the “gang of yelling.” Technique: one rapper delivers most of the verse with the rest chiming in on the four count or the end of a phrase. The name is derived from the end result: an indiscernible cacophony of yelling.

Wearing a purple shower cap and red Angry Birds t-shirt, Bizarre led the group in rhymes about murder, family (“Loyalty”), women (“She Devil”) and weed, lots of weed. At one point the group parodied the Temptations attempting a synchronized dance routine and faux crooning about “my weed” over a sample of “My Girl.” Like the rest of their performance it was obvious, uninspired and unnecessary.

Kid Cudi

Kid Cudi writes pop/rock songs delivered as soul numbers draped in hip hop attitude. As his four-piece band vamped over a heavy prog-rock riff, Cudi skipped onstage wearing a Joan Jett t-shirt. Cudi’s hour-long set veered from rap (“Soundtrack to My Life”), ‘80s pop (“Mr. Rager”) to indie pop (“Pursuit of Happiness”). Several times he transformed the large lawn into a huge dance club.

The music tipped heavily toward Cudi’s sophomore album released this year, “Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager,” but included the singles from Cudi’s 2009 debut and an a capella medley of favorites from the 2008 mixtape “A Kid Named Cudi.” Regardless of the source, fans enthusiastically sang along to Cudi’s songs about isolation and escapism through marijuana.

Cudi’s previous stop at the Midland Theater last spring was by all accounts a disaster. The difference this time the presence of live instruments, which emphatically translating Cudi’s charismatic  energy throughout the massive crowd. The triumph represented both the largest crowd and biggest response of the day, aside from headliner Eminem.

Major Lazer

The DJ duo of Dilpo and Switch – best known for their work with MIA and Beyonce’s “Girls (Who Run the World)” – were unfortunately slotted against California dj Bassnectar. With Bassnectar monopolizing the main stage, Major Lazer were unfortunately relegated to the Critical Mass Tent, an oversized carport with horrible air circulation stranded in the middle of port-a-potty land.

None of this stopped the dedicated from dancing as the pair blended standard techno tracks with touches of dancehall, Harry Belafonte, Lynryd Skynryd and their own “Keep It Goin’ Louder” from 2009’s full-length “Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do.”

Surrounded by four frantic LED screens, the pair got an assist from an over-the-top hype-man with a deep Jamaican patois and a dancer whose primary job was to perform headstands on every accommodating surface onstage, including on top of both stacks of speakers.

Keep reading:

Review: Kanrocksas (Day 2)

10 Must-see bands at Kanrocksas (part 1 – Friday)

Wakarusa Music Festival: A Look Back

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(Above: The mini-movie for “Our Deal,” the latest song from Best Coast.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record 

The big names at the top of the bill will draw the most fans, but sometimes the best performances are from lesser-known acts early in the day. In the week leading up to the inaugural Kanrocksas music festival we’ll examine 10 overlooked acts. Earlier this week we looked at five acts from Friday’s lineup. Below are some great picks for Saturday.

Hearts of Darkness (Main Stage, 1:30 – 2 p.m.)

Kansas City’s worst-kept secret will kick off Saturday with deep Afro-beat grooves so hot the sun may be intimidated. With a five-piece horn section and multiple percussionists, the 18-member band has recently upstaged Snoop Dogg and made Huey Lewis and the News work a little harder. Hopefully it won’t be too long until Hearts of Darkness get the later stage time they deserve.

Making Movies (INK Unplugged Stage, 3:30 – 4 p.m.)

Making Movies took their name from the Dire Straits, but their sound is closer to Los Lobos. And just like Los Lobos, Making Moviesconcerts are likely to skip all over the place, with a salsa cover running into a Modest Mouse song. They will bring a much-needed world music presence to the lineup.

Best Coast (Stagesaurus Rex, 3:40 – 4:20 p.m.)

As their iTunes sessions EP proves, Best Coast have a lot more muscle onstage than their dreamy, lo-fi indie pop recordings imply. That’s good because they’ll have a massive space to fill Saturday afternoon. Singer/songwriter Bethany Cosentino has great songwriting chops. Now we’ll see how her song translate over several sunny acres.

Girl Talk (Main Stage, 8:30 – 9:35 p.m.)

Mash-up king Greg Gillis is the king of plucking a song’s apex and pairing it with another seemingly disparate crescendo to create a nonstop party. By stealing a few pages from the Flaming Lips play book and spraying the crowd with confetti and letting fans party onstage, Gillis is the rare DJ that is as fun to watch as he is to listen to.

Soundtribe Sector 9 (Critical Mass tent, 11:15 p.m. – 1 a.m.)

The world of jam bands is an admittedly crowded and homogenous terrain, but STS9 manage to stand out by combining heavy electronic and psychedelic elements to the standard open-ended, improvisational fare. After withstanding two days and 24 hours of steady live music, zoning out and riding the STS9 wave may be the best way to end the festival.

Look for more Kanrocksas coverage next week on The Daily Record.

Keep reading:

10 Must-see bands at Kanrocksas (part 1 – Friday)

Review: Snoop Dogg with Hearts of Darkness

Review: Girl Talk

Read Full Post »

(Above: Gil Scott-Heron performs “We Almost Lost Detroit” in concert. His June 20 performance at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., earns an honorable mention as one of the top shows of the year.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Jonsi, April 22, Liberty Hall

Sigur Ros concerts have a sustained emotional intensity matched only by Radiohead’s events. On his own, Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi ratcheted the passion even higher. The 80-minute set focused only on Jonsi’s solo release “Go” and a few outtakes. Although the material was original, the textures, delivery and emotions echoed Jonsi’s other band, including a climax that was one of the most sustained and forceful moments in which I’ve ever had the joy of being included. Read more.

Emmylou Harris, July 18, Stiefel Theater, Salina, Kan.

Four days after delivering a short set in the blistering heat to the Lilith Fair crowd at Sandstone Amphitheater, Emmylou Harris took her Red Hot Band to tiny Salina, Kan. For two hours she gave an intimate set in a theater slightly smaller and slightly newer than Kansas City’s Folly Theater. The set reprised many of the songs performed at Lilith – including a beautiful a capella rendition of “Calling My Children Home” and Harris’ hymn “The Pearl” – a lovely tribute to her departed friend Anna McGarrigle, and other gems spanning her entire career. Harris’ enchanting voice captivates in any setting. Removed from the heat and placed in a charming surrounding it shined even brighter. Read a review of Lilith Fair here.

Pearl Jam, May 3, Sprint Center

Nearly all of the 28 songs Pearl Jam performed during its sold-out, two-and-a-half hour concert were sing-alongs. Kansas City fans has waited eight years since the band’s last stop to join in with their heroes, and the crowd let the band know it. Near the end, Eddie Vedder introduced Kansas City Royals legend Willie Wilson by wearing a No. 6 Royals jersey. Vedder later invited onstage wounded Iraqi war vet Tomas Young, who appeared in the documentary “Body of War.” With Young in a wheelchair to his left, Vedder performed “No More,” the song the pair wrote together. During the encore, a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic bobsledding team, joined the band on bass for “Yellow Ledbetter.” As the song ended it felt like the evening was winding down, but guitarist Mike McCready refused to quit, spraying a spastic version of Jimi Hendrix’ arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Sept. 21, Midland Theater

An ice storm and obscurity kept many fans away from Sharon Jones’ previous show in the area, a January gig at the Granada three years ago. With those obstacles removed, a crowded Midland Theater audience witnessed a soul revue straight out of the early ‘60s. With a band rooted in the Stax sound and a performance indebted to James Brown and Tina Turner, the diminutive Jones never let up. Jones only stopped dancing to chastise over-eager fans who kept climbing onto her stage. The tight, eight-piece horn section provided motivation enough for everyone else to keep moving.

Flaming Lips, Jan. 1, Cox Area, Oklahoma City

The year was less than an hour old when the Flaming Lips provided one of its top moments. After performing their standard 90-minute set, complete with lasers, confetti and sing-along versions of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Then more balloons and confetti ushered in the new year. The Lips celebrated by bringing opening act Star Death and White Dwarfs onstage for a joint performance of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in its entirety. Read more.

Izmore/Diverse – Like Water for Chocolate Tribute, March 19, Czar Bar

Combining hip hop and jazz became something of a cliché in the 1990s. The results typically only hinted at the union’s potential, and didn’t satisfy fans of either genre. Ten years after Common released his landmark album “Like Water For Chocolate,” a hip hop album that paid tribute to jazz, Afro-beat and gospel with the help of Roy Hargrove, Femi Kuti, Cee-Lo Green, J Dilla and others, some of Kansas City’s finest artists decided to celebrate the anniversary. MC Les Izmore delivered Common’s rhymes while the jazz quartet Diverse provided innovative and imaginative new backdrops. The result was both jazz and hip hop at their finest, with neither form compromising to the other. Read a feature on the event here.

David Gray, March 17, Uptown Theater

After releasing several solid albums in obscurity in the 1990s, David Gray finally broke into the mainstream at the turn of the century. As his tours grew bigger and catalog became richer, a Kansas City date remained elusive. On St. Patrick’s Day, Gray finally satisfied a ravenous capacity crowd with a two-hour set sprinkled with the songs that made him a household name. Songs like “Babylon” and “World To Me” are written well enough to make the show memorable, but the passion and energy Gray and his band invested in the night made this an amazing night for even this casual fan. A strong opening set from Phosphorescent made the evening even better. Read more.

Black Keys, June 4, Crossroads

The Akron, Ohio, garage blues duo opened Crossroads’ summer season with a sold-out night that focused on their latest effort, the spectacular “Brothers.” Drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach were augmented with a bass player and keyboardist on several numbers, but their trademark sound remained unaltered. Read more.

Public Image Ltd., April 26, Midland Theater

On paper, fans had a right to be cynical about this tour. After embarrassing himself with a handful of half-assed Sex Pistols reunions, Johnny Rotten recruited two new musicians to reconstitute his Public Image Ltd. project. Although Rotten was PiL’s only consistent member, and his current X-piece band had never played together before, they managed to flawlessly replicate the band’s finest moments. The Midland was embarrassingly empty – the balcony was closed, and the floor was less than half full – but Rotten played like it was the final night of the tour in front of a festival crowd. Read more.

Allen Toussaint, Jan. 8, Folly Theater

Seventy-two-year-old New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint has been writing, producing and performing hit singles for more than 50 years. His songs include “Working In A Coal Mine,” “Mother In Law,” “A Certain Girl” and “Get Out Of My Life Woman.” Toussaint performed all of these numbers and more in what was remarkably his first concert in Kansas City. His own remarkable catalog aside, the evening’s high point was an amazing solo version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Read more.

Keep reading:

Top 10 Concerts of 2009

Top 10 concerts of 2008

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(Above: Michael Ivins (far left) of the Flaming Lips wants to be the star on top of your Christmas tree.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Flaming Lips make every concert feel like a holiday, so it’s unsurprising several songs in their catalog have been inspired by Christmas – the biggest holiday of them all.

“A Change At Christmas (Say it Isn’t So)” isn’t the Oklahoma City-based alternative rock band’s first tribute to Christmas. They had already brought “Christmas at the Zoo” and would soon deliver “Christmas on Mars.” But “A Change At Christmas” stands out, because it displays the “one love” hippie ethos at the heart of many of the band’s songs.

In the song, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne wishes he could stop time so the whole world could permanently live in the goodwill of the season. A time, he says, “the world embraces peace and love and mercy/Instead of power and fear.” In the last verse he pleads “tell me I’m not just a dreamer,” echoing John Lennon, another Christmas idealist.

Above: Even Santa Claus gets down during a Flaming Lips concert.

The arrangement features many of the Lips trademarks, including a sunny wash of synthesizers and toy drum machine. Sleigh bells and chimes bring a Yuletide feel, while a simple piano line holds the melody.

“A Change At Christmas” is also notable for being one of the rare times Coyne abandons his signature falsetto to deliver his heartfelt words of hope in his natural range. The optimism of the track is cemented with Coyne’s final words. During the fade-out he declares “I think it’s all going to work out just fine.”

While the Lips’ other Christmas songs saw release on proper albums or seasonal singles, “A Change At Christmas” was tucked into the “Ego Tripping” EP released in 2003. At the time of its release, the Lips were riding the success of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” with a deluge of singles, EPs and other releases. “A Change At Christmas” has become buried in the back catalog, but it’s a rare Christmas song that plays well year-round. It’s especially worth digging out in December.

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Jesus Christ”

Review: The Flaming Lips – “Christmas On Mars”

 

 

 

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(Above: An excerpt from Sufjan Stevens’ 25-minute saga “Impossible Souls” performed at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

It’s unlikely one will ever find a reissue of “Tales of Topographic Oceans” in the record bins at Urban Outfitters or see hipsters sporting Emerson, Lake and Palmer shirts with their skinny jeans. But on Sunday night at the Uptown Theater, indie singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens delivered a chunk of progressive rock that would have made fans of Gentle Giant and Yes proud.

The earthy folk rock of Stevens’ breakthrough albums – “Seven Swans,” “Michigan” and “Illinois” – has been replaced by electronic, adventurous rock landscapes. About an hour into his two-hour set, Stevens explained the shift saying songwriting was “no longer loyal” to him so he started playing with rudimentary sounds. 

 Sufjan Stevens shifts gears with his new “Age of Adz.”  Extended segments of noises and effects – particularly on the 25-minute journey “Impossible Soul” – made the set feel more like an art installation that a rock show at times. But whether channeling Genesis and the Flaming Lips or Paul Simon and Cat Stevens, the Uptown’s sold-out crowd hung on every note.

After tossing fans a bone with “Seven Swans,” Stevens and his 11-piece band focused exclusively on material from August’s hour-long “All Delighted People” EP and “The Age of Adz,” an album released this month. The poppy “Too Much” came with a boozy twin-trombone solo and could have been a dance hit in another dimension if not for the extended burps and warbles of guitars, organ and synthesizers in its second half.

As the band delivered its complex themes and arrangements, a large trapezoidal video screen reinforced the themes. Space opera “The Age of Adz” featured a film that looked like an animated Funkadelic album cover. Stevens later explained the number as an “explorative supernatural song about love and heartache” and added that a “broken heart doesn’t always bring the apocalypse, but it always feels like it.”Sure it’s pretentious, but it was also a lot of fun and more accessible than it sounds.

The songs felt intimate despite Steven’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach. This was due in large part to his hushed, soft falsetto and intimate, yet inviting lyrics. Even the most bombastic material contained letters of encouragement, boasting self-affirming lyrics like “don’t be distracted” and “Sufjan, follow your heart.”

Several numbers were delivered with spare arrangements featuring little more than Steven’s voice and finger-picked guitar. “Heirloom” was just as delicate as its title, while “Futile Devices” was a soul-baring tribute to Stevens’ brother.  When Stevens later forgot the lyrics during the quiet “Enchanting Ghost” it only enhanced the intimacy.

Stevens prepped his crowd for “Impossible Soul,” informing them they were about to embark on an “intense, emotional, psychotherapy experiment.” The result was nowhere near as ponderous the introduction or running time implied. “Soul” is less a song than an exploration of a song idea from every conceivable angle. Melodies and themes were tackled via prog-rock, ‘80s dance and autotune before concluding with Stevens gingerly plucking his acoustic guitar. It was enough fun that the band slipped in a bit of Salt and Peppa’s “Push It” and one of the supporting singers danced around the stage spraying silly string.

The crowd’s patience with the new material was rewarded with three songs from “Illinois.” “Chicago” ended the main set and drew the biggest cheers of the night. After saying goodnight, Stevens returned alone and delivered “Concerning the UFO” on piano and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” on acoustic guitar. It was a bit creepy to hear the audience sing along with Steven’s haunting portrait of the serial killer and an odd note to end the show on.

As with the rest of the evening’s detours, no one seemed to mind. After five long years, the hero had finally returned to his fans. The path may not have been expected, but the results were just as spectacular.DM Stith: The opening act only got 20 minutes, but he had no trouble silencing the crowd. Armed only with his acoustic guitar, the singer/songwriter delivered four songs very much in mold of Stevens’ most popular work. Using several pedals and a sampler, Stith was able to recreate a percussion section and choir by building then looping a series of claps, stomps and harmony vocals. The trick may not be new, but it was still impressive. Stith’s songwriting was even better. It would be interesting to see what he could do with a full set. Several of his songs may be downloaded for free on the Website for Asthmatic Kitty, the label Stevens founded.

Sufjan Stevens Setlist: Seven Swans; Too Much; Age of Adz; Heirloom; I Walked; Futile Devices; Vesuvius; Now That I’m Older; Get Real, Get Right; Enchanting Ghost; Impossible Soul; Chicago. Encore: Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois; John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

Keep reading:

Review: The Decemberists

Review: “Ripped” by Greg Kot

Review: Modest Mouse (2010)

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