(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.
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.