The Atlanta music scene has weathered an an embarrassment of riches over the past few weeks. It all started with an incredible show by Cat Power at the Variety Playhouse, which I happily attended (listen to parts of the new album, The Greatest). The New York Times ran a nice article about singer Chan Marshall a few days after the show.
A few days later, the Flaming Lips were at the Tabernacle (I did not attend) – all reports from friends in the house were that it was a spectacular show. You can listen to the Lips on their web site (click “audio”).
The Lips were followed by the Georgia Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the World Congress Center. The highlight of the evening was a performance by R.E.M., including Bill Berry on drums. I watched the show on our local PBS station, but Beth was there and has this excellent report (with video). Also: Michael Stipe referred to Athens, GA as “The ATH” during the show, which cracks me up.
The highlight for me though was Sufjan Stevens at the Fox Theatre. It was so different than anything I’d ever seen before that the show is permanently in my Top 5 music shows of all time (which changes like a mood ring). I should also mention that I sat in the second row for this concert. I’m not sure how that happened, but I was so fortunate I can hardly stand it. I usually mock people mercilessly for bringing cameras to the rock and roll show, but with second row seats I was willing to be “that guy.”
Sufjan was on just about every critic’s “year end/best of” list last year. His music is hard to describe. He’s often described as “new folk.” That description would usually send me running to an exit, so that’s not very satisfying. One critic called Sufjan “the king of research-paper rock.” I mention that review (which was tepid) only to justify this big ass post about a band I saw on a book blog. Anyway, he’s definitely not rock – as in “Whoa! That guy ROCKS.” His songs can be lushly orchestrated or very spare and minimalist. Let’s just say his music fits squarely under the “indie music” umbrella and move on.
I’ll skip the opening band, which was interesting, because this post is already too long. We knew we were in for a unique experience when Sufjan took to the stage with 14 other musicians. There were at least 8 people on various strings, a three man horn section, keyboard, guitars/banjo, drums. Sufjan went back and forth between piano, guitar, and banjo. Everyone was decked out in cloth wings, feathered bird masks, and khaki uniforms. You could tell Sufjan apart from the others in the band, because his uniform had yellow piping and the others had red. While at times it looked like it might be a Max Fischer production, it didn’t come off as pretentious or lame. It all seemed to be sincere and earnest, and it just worked.
A temporary sound glitch cause a piercing electronic squeal that forced the band to cover their ears while the boss struck a Rodin pose. The evening was otherwise flawless.
Some haters have commented that song titles like, “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is out to get us!” might be a little pretentious. Once Sufjan explained the song (which he’s performing above), it is difficult to the imagine it being called anything else. Somewhere in here, fellow BGB contributor, Shaft, turned to me and said, “Damn, he can tell a story.” Which is true.
For the encore, the wings were put away and Sufjan did a song by himself, followed by one more with the band, all in their civilian clothes.
The best song of the evening, for me, was Chicago. I managed to capture the performance on my digital camera, which I didn’t even know could do this trick. Sweet. Enjoy my video below. The sound isn’t the greatest, but you can get a good idea of what it was all about. A commenter on the YouTube page where my video resides says, “I nearly exploded with happiness during Chicago, it was so beautiful I could hardly take it.”
And that sentiment really sums up the show. Unlike just about any show that I’ve ever been to, everyone sat in near silence to take it all in. I got up to go to the restroom in this enormous venue and saw no one else in the aisles going or coming. It was a spectacular evening top to the bottom. If this concert is coming within 750 miles of your land, check it out. Here’s a CNN review of the same show with handy tour schedule.
An aside: If you’ve seen the movie Little Miss Sunshine, you’ve heard the music of Sufjan Stevens. Chicago was the song that played as the family loaded up in the VW van for the first time. No Man’s Land was the second (and last) song to play over the credits.