Like so many others, I dig Come on Feel The Illinoise. It’s bold and imaginative album. Quirky yet complex. A broad thematical and emotional scope but never too dense. At times playful, hopeful, sincere as well as chilling. A thoroughly engaging listen. (For some reason, I have never got around to hearing any of his other records)
A songwriter with such a grandiose vision is always going difficult to replicate in the live arena. However, after the assessments coming out of the Sydney blogosphere, it looked like Sufjan had done exactly that.
Unfortunately my assessment of his debut Melbourne show at the Forum last night failed to concur with the overwhelmingly positive feedback from my fellow bloggers. A noble attempt at majesty – no doubt, but one that felt a little flat in its execution.
The visual design of the show was commendable. A somewhat stimulating video presentation, vibrant colourful costumes, and, a highlight being an extravagant hula hooper on one of the tracks (2 hula hoopers if you include Sufjan!). Admittedly it did appear a little bit on the cheap side, and with so many performers on stage, this made it feel a little bit like a community group (or, dare I say it, a church group), design and performance. But this definitely worked in its favour. Too slick and it would have detracted from the honest offbeat qualities of his music.
But, I just don’t think there was the performance to match.
Apart from some movement from his female pianist and bass player, Sufjan’s band, for the most part, gave a very rigid performance.. Many of them acted like session musos, the only quirk being they were dressed up.
They sounded OK, but it seemed a bit dull. No songs or notes hit me the way I hoped. There were some abstract diversions but the performance wasn't as passionate as the wildly inventive music required, and much of the band performed as if reading off sheets of music.
Sufjan himself tried hard, and that was appreciated. From his interaction with the audience many of earlier songs clearly emerged as an escape from poverty - the introduction to Seven Swans recalled Sufjan growing up, at the same time powerfully and whimsically conveying the lack of options when poor, as well as subtly indicting his nation’s treatment of those in that situation.
But Sufjan always felt awkward as a performer, never quite displaying the comfort in himself, nor the control perhaps expected as the leader of such a large band, playing such huge and ambitious music.
Later in the show he admitted that it was a humiliating experience performing live and when he said that I felt quite empathetic. So much is expected of an artist who releases good music to come out a deliver a live performance that matches the record, and with the full band, the lights, the costumes etc. he was definitely aware of the expectations and tried to meet them.
So, points for putting in a big effort, and most people seemed to go away pleased. (Of course I did hear the obligatory ‘best gig eva’ remark on leaving), but it fell short of my expectations. With an artist as talented as him, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. He does set the bar very high.