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Sufjan Stevens @ Turner Hall Ballroom

Dec. 13, 2012

Dec. 14, 2012
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CJ Foeckler
It makes sense that Sufjan Stevens would have a soft spot for Christmas. After all, the holiday touches on several of the songwriter’s most pervasive motifs: Christianity, childhood nostalgia and Americana. What’s surprising, though, is the scale of Stevens’ Christmas obsession. Never one for moderation, Stevens has released two, five-disc box sets of Christmas music since his 2005 masterwork Illinois, the latest of which, Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10, arrived this November. That’s a ridiculous amount of Christmas music for any act that isn’t Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but apparently Stevens hasn’t exhausted the holiday muse yet. This month he released a companion Christmas mixtape, the dreadfully titled Chopped & Scrooged, while in the middle of a 24-stop tour behind what he’s calling the “Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant On Ice,” or some variation thereof (the exact billing varies from stop to stop).

As that title suggested, Thursday night’s sold-out concert at the Christmas-lights-adorned Turner Hall Ballroom was as much about whimsy as it was holiday cheer. The crowd wore ugly sweaters and Santa hats; at times it could be difficult to see the stage over their reindeer-antler headbands. Stevens, who occasionally honked on a kazoo and shot confetti out of a wand throughout the set, wore a beer-straw helmet and a cut-off T-shirt with the letters “X MESS” taped to the back. His costumed band included a snowman, a skeleton, and a chicken in a Superman cape. He determined his set list, in part, by spinning a large Wheel of Christmas, which landed on seasonal standards like “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” “Jingle Bells,” “Do You See What I See?” and “Joy To The World,” the latter of which he Auto-Tuned.

So why did Stevens cloak his celebration in so many layers of kitsch and eccentricity? That he drove such ironic distance between himself and a holiday he genuinely loves may speak to how (for some) he’s come to embody indie-pop’s most cloying tendencies, but he clearly knows his audience. The crowd couldn’t have been more delighted; they laughed and cheered and really did sing along, not only to the traditional songs but also to Stevens’ originals, especially “Christmas Unicorn,” the chirpy, psychedelic epic that closed the set in Flaming Lips fashion with showers of confetti, balloons and pomp.

During the five years that passed without a proper follow-up to Illinois (a period he apparently spent much of recording Christmas music), Stevens was surpassed by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as indie-rock’s folk-leaning artist of choice, but he ended Thursday night with a reminder of why he was once held in such esteem (even by those with a low tolerance for quirk). For the encore, he played scaled-back versions of four of Illinois’ most poignant songs, including “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” a sympathetic take on the serial killer, and “Casimir Pulaski Day,” a matter-of-fact account of a friend’s death from bone cancer. Even the album’s choral centerpiece, “Chicago,” was stripped bare, but its melodies and sentiments held. Gorgeous and 100% sincere, the songs were a reminder of how effective a songwriter Stevens can be when he isn’t goofing around.


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