Sufjan Stevens | 10.05 | New York

Words by: Alex Nief | Images by: JC McIlwaine

Sufjan Stevens :: 10.05.09 :: Bowery Ballroom :: New York, NY

Sufjan Stevens | 10.05 | Bowery Ballroom
To set the scene: It was a lovely fall evening in New York. I was delirious with fever and the Bowery Ballroom basement was flooded with water emanating from the women's bathroom.

When faced with the ominous tickles and aches of an oncoming illness there is only one thing to do: drink heavily. The simple fact of the matter is that you're going to be bedridden for the remainder of the week so you might as well load up while you're able (and if, in so doing, you manage to poison the oncoming virus, well, you win twice).

I grabbed a few drinks at the basement bar and took up residence on a comfortable, well-decorated bench. I was almost instantly unnerved at the sight of a pocket-sized notepad that had been placed on the table in front of me by a gentleman a few feet to my right. The top page read: "Sufjan Stevens 10/05 Bowery." Wholly unwilling to be moved by this puerile gesture - clearly a fellow journalist attempting to intimidate me - I scrawled the same title atop my legal pad and slammed it down on the table, dwarfing his diminutive flip-pad. I gave him a sharp stare and tilted my head slightly as if to say, "If you like that, you should see my pen." The amateur evacuated. I began to study the room, searching for non-white Sufjan Stevens fans (I gave up after twenty minutes).

Thirty minutes of observing the crowd revealed a strikingly homogeneous group. The Sufjan Stevens fan can be described as white, 25-35 years of age, well dressed, and in good shape from excessive bicycling. Most who adore Stevens do so with a cult-like passion. For the women in the audience, they would gladly leave their significant others for a night of passionate cuddling and crying with Stevens. The men would likely do the same.

Sufjan Stevens | 10.05 | Bowery Ballroom
When Sufjan Stevens took the stage the packed Bowery audience erupted for about twenty-five seconds before falling silently transfixed as he grabbed his banjo and, with horn accompaniment, eased us in with "The Mistress Witch from McClure (or The Mind That Knows Itself)," a depressing ditty which is part evocative memoir and part auto-philosophical. Almost every Sufjan Stevens song has a strange way of sounding like the recounting of a slow and painful death. The crowd, which had not so much as sneezed during the three-minute opener, again came to life with startling applause at its conclusion.

Stevens' onstage persona calls up memories of a young Bob Dylan fielding questions from eager reporters upon his arrival in San Francisco in 1965. At one point early in his set, Stevens moved a piece of paper, leaned into the microphone and said, "Sweet." The entire audience roared with laughter, and you could almost sense that there were people rushing to the bathrooms with their iPhones to call every bar in Williamsburg with the fantastic news.

Despite the too-clever post-hipster art worship crowd that seems to gather at his feet, Sufjan Stevens is a gifted songwriter with an uncommon skill: taking fairly simple musical compositions, applying dynamic arrangements for multiple instruments and ultimately creating cute little symphonies that are quite impressive. This, coupled with hauntingly evocative lyrics, makes Stevens the admired artist that he is and no amount of derisive commentary from a non-believer like myself can change that. But allow me to continue to try.

Sufjan Stevens | 10.05 | Bowery Ballroom
I would sooner climb a barbed wire fence naked than pay to see this circus displayed at a general admission, standing-room-only venue such as the Bowery. Make no mistake - the Bowery has one of the best layouts of any venue in NYC - but one must consider the performer (it was as counterintuitive as a seated thrash show). But it is a testament to his cult following that Sufjan Stevens holds the record for the most sellouts at the Bowery. He could probably sell out the quarantine unit at New York Presbyterian during an Ebola outbreak.

The highlight of the show was the introduction of a couple of new songs, which showed a clear departure from his previous work. The new numbers were robust and energetic, more "Flaming Lips" than his earlier "Belle & Sebastian on downers" sound. It was still Sufjan Stevens though: well-orchestrated cacophony, post-folk art rock.

About halfway through his set, I tried to make my way from the balcony to the stage. Since nobody dances during a Sufjan Stevens show - the audience huddles close together, forming a giant, mesmerized mass - this ended up taking about twenty minutes, and I arrived at stage right covered in corduroy burns.

As one fan moved toward the exit after the last encore he stopped by my barstool in the basement where I had been hiding for a short while with a bottle of Maker's Mark, now beyond delirium. "How'd you like the show?" I asked. He shrugged and gave it an "Alright." "Lots of people though," I said. His response summed it up: "Yeah, but that's the thing: I'd rather listen to Sufjan in my living room with headphones on." I couldn't agree more.

Continue reading for more images of Sufjan Stevens in New York...


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