Detroit native Sufjan Stevens has built quite a fan base in Iceland, so it was not surprising that his two shows last month sold out in a matter of minutes and more dates would surely have been appreciated. Those lucky devotees who got a ticket in time flocked with anticipation to Fríkirkjan Church to see his European tour climaxing in Reykjavík in a god-like manner.
Fríkirkjan Church, usually holding approximately 500 people, was overfilled when opening act St. Vincent, started her set. With every seat on the church benches taken, some late arrivals had to settle for a place on the floor. That didn’t diminish the cosy feel inside the church that night, where candles lit up the stage and Jesus hovered above it. Every bit of decoration was in total harmony with Stevens’ music, underlining how perfect a small-scale venue was for this kind of a show.
St. Vincent, a moniker of the multi-talented singer and songwriter Annie Clark, blew everyone away with her first tune. She has been supporting Stevens during his European tour, deservedly earning attention for her solo project. Her dynamic voice, heartfelt performance, complex melodies and unusual instrumentation, like stomping her foot to the ground to create an intense drum sound while playing the guitar, got every single soul in the audience gazing at the stage, almost forgetting that there was more to come. (Check out her MySpace page for songs Marry Me and Paris is Burning, in particular.) After her set, I wasn’t only excited about the following act but equally thrilled by the fact I had now discovered another genius. That was just a bonus.
The instrument-packed stage indicated that Stevens’s supporting band included quite a few members. The inflated Santa Clauses lying on top of the piano gave no indication at all. Also mysteriously lying on the piano were severeal inflated Supermen, an obvious reference to the fracas over the original cover of Illinois album, which sports Superman. Only a few albums exist with the original cover. Stupid copyright laws.
Sufjan Stevens is not only a unique musician, a brilliant writer and composer but also a creative performer. It was soon evident that the props on the piano had a purpose when Stevens and the Band of Butterflies entered one after another, wearing feathered masks and butterfly wings. Stevens himself had eagle wings tied to his back and told the crowd he was the chief eagle in the majesty snowbird tour where the theme was flying objects. When the Supermen and Santa Clauses started bouncing like colourful marionettes inside Fríkirkjan after Stevens threw them in the crowd I understood what he meant.
After introducing his band as the Magical Butterfly Brigade and he himself the Majesty Songbird, the whole crew, consisting of a brass band, drummer and a string set, started off with the theme song Majesty Snowbird.
Stevens’s instrumental talents were no secret, but seeing him switch between the piano, guitar, banjo and occasional cow bell, was amazing, as was the supporting brass section and aforementioned St. Vincent, who had re-entered the stage, now wearing butterfly wings, playing the guitar, sometimes the piano and singing back-up vocals on a couple of the songs.
Although the songs were all familiar to the audience and the set mostly consisted of tracks from the albums Seven Swans and Illinois (the second piece in the 50 States puzzle), the compositions were so much more imposing and sensational than on the albums, as Seven Swans, Sister and two of my favourites, To Be Alone With You and The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts, bore witness to. In keeping with the evening and the season, Stevens also played a Christmas song, That Was the Worst Christmas Ever! from his Songs for Christmas album.
It would be impossible to talk about the show without mentioning Stevens’ lyrics and stories. His narrative skills were also displayed as he delivered historical facts and stories about notable people, mixed with religious views and weird jokes in songs with ridiculously long titles that stressed his strong feelings towards fellow countrymen and complex emotions and childhood memories.
His performance of A Good Man Is Hard To Find, based on a short story about a serial killer written by American novelist Flannery O’Connor, who he paid tribute to before playing the song, was received with booming applause. Another breathtaking performance was his rendition of John Wayne Gacy, Jr (also about a serial killer). As sad as this story of the serial killer from Chicago dressed in a clown suit is, when he delivered lines like: “His father was a drinker/and his mother cried in bed” with his delicate voice Stevens almost made you feel sympathy for the man.
After an almost two-hour show and several spine-chilling moments, Stevens and his winged friends said goodnight, only to return to the stage after a lengthy applause and outcries from the crowd. “I can’t believe he’s not gonna play Chicago,” the guy sitting next to me had said to his friend when Stevens didn’t seem to be coming back again. But the audience didn’t crack, and kept on clapping and stomping until now humble and almost watery-eyed Stevens returned, alone, taking his good time thanking the guests for the warm welcome, before kicking off with Chicago. For the last two songs, the whole band came back for support with the concert culminating in Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.
Everything clicked perfectly. Stevens and his Butterfly band were more energetic, passionate, magical even, than I had dared to hope for, leaving the audience in a daze. Taking their time thanking the band for its staggering performance that night, the crowd slowly scattered away, some carrying an inflated Santa under their arm, a memorable souvenir of a concert no one in the church would forget about in the near future.