What do cheerleading, Jesus, and a blowup Superman doll with a squeaky head have in common? They all play a crucial role in the strange but satisfying, silly yet serious Sufjan Stevens live show.
Sufjan Stevens is bold in both his ambitions (to write an album dedicated to each of the 50 United States) and his choice of material. While many songwriters might feel that a detailed lesson in American history would alienate their audience, Stevens creates an unflinchingly accurate record of Decatur, Peoria, and countless other small Illinois towns. Sufjan Stevens invites you to “Come on feel the Illinoise!” and he means it. You’ll feel it alright.
Stevens’s dedication to Americana is particularly fulfilling when brought to the stage as Sufjan Stevens and the Illinoisemakers entered in matching hot orange and navy blue cheerleading outfits. The gang sported orange pom-poms and sweatbands, and each and every one had an enormous, furry letter “I” across their chest. They are serious Illinois fans.
The costumes were just the beginning as Stevens led the Illinoisemakers through a series of complicated cheers over the course of the evening; all dedicated to the wonders of Illinois. Choreographed dances, cheerleading moves after each song, and frequent Illinois flag-waving were in abundance. The Illinoisemakers even found time to form a human pyramid, though as Stevens said, it might have been “the worst human pyramid ever.” The result was humorous yet sincere, and particularly playful when squeaky-headed Superman joined in a cheer to introduce a song about his hometown of Metropolis.
The lighthearted theme did not pervade the entire evening, however. After the haunting “John Wayne Gacy, Jr,” which reveals the gruesome, truthful details behind the murder of twenty-seven boys at the hands of a serial killer, the audience was moved into a reverent silence, the likes of which I had never witnessed before. No one could even breathe. The spell of this beautiful and yet repulsive song would not be broken. Finally, Stevens mumbled “Thank you,” and burst the stillness. We were yanked from the world of death and decay back into the present celebration of life, music, and Illinois.
The audience was once again hushed at Sufjan’s second (yes, second) encore “To Be Alone With You.” This lovely, simple meditation on his faith showed him to be an absolutely fearless songwriter.
Some of the larger orchestrated songs, “Chicago” and “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” in particular, suffered from a lack of woodwinds and other absent instruments. But while some of the power of the full orchestral recording was missing, the scaled down versions were more intimate. Someday I’d love to see an orchestra of thirty Illinoisemakers filling the stage, but until then, they strive mightily to create a symphony sound with only seven people.
Their last battle cry was a fight song with just one word: Illinois! They had made their point. We rode beside Stevens on his Midwest journey; one of zombies, paralyzing loss, chickenmobiles, and even the fragility of all humanity.