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Sufjan Stevens and the Illinoise Makers 9/22 @ Mississippi Nights – Wrong side of the river September 23, 2005

Posted by Matt Hurst in Uncategorized.
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It was one of those nights when an act comes through this wretched town that obliges every fucking scenester to crawl out from under the woodwork. Sufjan (that’s “soof-yan”) Stevens rolls into town on his “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” leg of his 50 state odyssey. Just on the wrong side of the river. It’s probably just part of the act.
There were the usual indicators of a good show, and many further grievances. Does every band in town have a MySpace.com page? Why would you even want to mention it at this point? Waste of valuable printing space if you ask me. I’ll look into it, but not willingly.
Of all venues to see an act that is 1.)GETTING A LOT OF PRESS and 2.) STILL HAS A SHRED OF INDIE CRED, they book Mississippi nights. It is known for its generic beer selection and mainstream rock acts, or so I understand at least. Even the Scottish elves act of the moment, Franz Ferdinand, had the good sense to book the Pageant. It is largely commercial as a venue, yes, but it also has good beer and lots of critical carlings running through it at regular intervals. Most importantly, my car cannot run well on the cobblestone streets here on the landing (as we call it).

Loneliness in the midst of others notwithstanding (this is an easy town to be a loner in) – the first act was a label mate of Sufjan‘s named Liz Janes, who opened with an enchanting ukulele tune that left me spellbound in spite of a rude crowd that would continue to talk over her set. Bringing forward her brazen yet delicate alt-country in the late tradition of Emmylou Harris. Unlike Emmylou, Liz was able to play a crowd nearly 1000 in number and make it seem like an intimate venue, even to those viewing the set at a perpendicular angle. Adding players and introducing instruments with each song in her set, Liz’s songs became increasingly tragic/epic as the audience began to swoon. Her smoky voice gained power with each number, delivering the lyrics punishing blows of heartbreak like a hammer to the heart. Only then she drew back to her uke to play a spirited duet of “swing low, sweet chariot” in a fury that got the audience to clap along with the old spiritual. Shortly thereafter she played her finale with her friend, which left me clamoring for a whiskey sour. Nice stuff, really.
At intermission, the seensters (sic) went to work. Such a pitiful bathroom crowd featured other men parting their coif so perfectly aloof as to be visible under their skull caps in a venue full of carbon monoxide poisoning (my fault). These scoundrels don’t deserve such a good show just so they can be seen by the right people. You can smell the concentrated scented oils when you stand this close to people in a packed house. It is noxious.
Finally Sufjan Stevens and the Illinoise makers came on stage, in full Illini regalia. Sufjan drove straight into the 50 states song in flag-covered uni-tard regalia; its part of the act. He and his team had no trouble sending a packed house into a frenzy with as the head cheerleader his team’s cheerleading routines that set up the songs he would play. Hell, they even made a human pyramid later in the set; a set full of cheap tricks to keep the audience in good spirits through some of the most sad songs you will hear this time of night.

If you’re not familiar with the Sufjan sound (shame on you), it is full of the sonic (and often lyrical) inventive inventiveness of the flaming lips, played acoustically with only minor amplification. Leonard Cohen would blush at the playful sounds they are able to create. They must have brought their own live equipment because you have never heard a live show so crisply mixed, save a minor buzz in the line. Not that the crowd was much help, as they blabbered in front of greatness and people would make great effort to bump you on their way by so as to distract you from the show. Nonetheless, everyone present bagan descending into school children, even though they refused to be caught singing along. The band themselves worked a lot of the loose ends in the sound perfectly. Most of them were multi-instrumentalists who genuinely looked like they were having fun playing the same show over and over. This is spite of the blistering heat the masses inside produced.

The set was fun, inventive and full of soul. Most of the songs at least seemed like carefully coordinated improv, especially in the Wilco-like breakdown of “Cashmir Pulanski Day“. There was even an extra standard of the “Star Spangled Banner“, delivered a slow gospel soul that left most there feeling like crying for the remains of a once great nation. The whole show felt like a new church of music, with hymns of defeat and triumph reinterpreted through gospel tunes, even when it got funky.
If you heard about this show and passed anyway, you missed an unforgettable night. Sufjan is everything you have heard he is, except he is very sweet and lacks any ego. So much so to a fault, that he couldn’t turn down the encore calling that slowly devolved into a high school pep rally for the state of Illinois. It was only right to do of course, but I wouldn’t have done it. Then again, we all know the history of concert riots in this city… If Sufjan makes it through to the state of Misery on his 50 state opus, he will surely have fond memories from this stop on the tour. At least I know I will.

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