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An Evening with Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens’ live show is just as varied and complex as his various releases through the years. What Sufjan seems capable of is combining great musicianship – whether it’s his fantastic finger picking on a banjo or his backup singers harmonizing amazingly well – with an almost performance art atmosphere.

When the show first starts, Sufjan and his backing band enter the stage, all dressed in a variety of bright neon colors. Sufjan himself has a pair of costume angel wings tucked behind his back.

He says something along the lines of, “Peace be upon you, peace be upon the world. Let’s have some fun tonight” in a low monkish murmur and begins playing. When the song climaxes, his wings spurt out from his back.

That isn’t where the strangeness ends either. Throughout his set, Sufjan goes through four or five costume changes. This includes a full body outfit completely covered in balloons and some weird alien-like silver blob of an outfit.

His backup singers and horn section continue strange bits of choreography throughout the show, as the band pumps out material mostly from folky fan favorite “Illinois” and the experimental “The Age of Adz,” plus a few from the wildly sad “Carrie & Lowell” which was written in the wake of his mother’s death.

The mood of Sufjan’s show varies quite a bit as a result of him drawing from these very different releases. He somehow manages to pull off playing “Impossible Soul,” an over 20 minute electropop jam that’s as fun as can be. It’s moments like these that the audience rises from their seats, screams along, and tries their best to dance in the tight quarters of Wolf Trap.

Then there are the moments when the lights are dimmed down, the rest of the band merely watching Sufjan himself, as he finger picks away at his guitar while crooning sad words. When he begins playing “Carrie & Lowell,” you’re hit by the immensity of emotion – all other noise dies down and it’s simply Sufjan Stevens.

It’s hard not to be captivated by all that Sufjan does. At one point, he reads a quote from French essayist Michel de Montaigne about facing death head on. Many of his songs seem to center around death in fact, a surprising fact when one experiences his live show that’s packed with joy and an eagerness to enjoy life for what it is.

I tend not to be a huge fan of big, seated venues like Wolf Trap, but for Sufjan it just makes sense. It’s so much more rooted in weird performance art aspects than other live shows are that I would almost feel wrong not sitting for it. It didn’t lack intimacy because it was a large venue either – at one point his amplifier wasn’t working, and Sufjan continued plucking away at the final song “Casimir Pulaski Day” anyway, belting out as loud as he could.

Sufjan is a strange anomaly. It’s no surprise that this is the same guy who wrote an open letter correcting Miley Cyrus’ grammar in a song, or releasing a Christmas themed hip-hop mixtape. He’s an anomaly worth watching.