Throughout the past decade Sufjan Stevens has cemented himself as one of the most talented and unique artists of our generation, with a diverse array of talents ranging from classically inspired folk pop to the aural adventures of the past few years with Age of Adz and BQE, it’s a toss up as to what direction any new music from Stevens is going to take. When he announced his most recent release, Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas, Vols. 6-10, I wasn’t too sure of what to expect…especially with the lead-off single of “Christmas Unicorn”. The track was as bizarre as it was insightful and infectious (especially the seamless transition into Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”), which can pretty accurately describe the three plus hours of Christmas inspired material on Silver & Gold. Shortly after the album announcement came news of the “Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Season Affective Disorder Yuletide Pageant On Ice” tour, a string of shows which would feature good ol’ “Sufjy Pants” spreading Christmas cheer by way of his modern takes on Christmas classics as well as his incredible new holiday inspired originals.
While some of the Christmas inspired material is brief and zany, like “Happy Family Christmas” a jaunting yet melodic track wishing that “Just this once for Christmas I want us all to be like one great big happy family”, and while the holiday is exactly a month away, Sunday at Haw River Ballroom felt like a gigantic family Christmas gathering. With hundreds of concertgoers decked out in festive sweaters and unicorn horns, Sunday provided one of the most unique and magical show experiences one could ever wish for. While opener Sheila Sapputo (better known as singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas) donned a Santa suit for a quirky Portlandia-esque bit of dry comedy, the highlight of the show could be nothing other than the marvelous display put on by Sufjan and company.
The show was broken up into bits of Sufjan originals and highly enjoyable breaks for Christmas classics from the Wheel!Of!Christmas!, a Price Is Right style spin-wheel designed to randomize the carols we’ve all grown to know and love. Upon entrance we were all given a songbook, endearingly referred to by Sufjan as our “book of hymnals”, and these carols provided for some of the most memorable concert moments in recent memory. While Sufjan originals like “Sister Winter” and the aforementioned “Christmas Unicorn” stood out amongst the set, the true highlights came from the innovative takes on old classics. An electronically driven version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was a show-stopping performance, featuring vocoded Sufjan vocals and spastic electronic melodies that excellently juxtapose the calm and soothing stylings of the original. After the Wheel of Christmas selected “Joy to the World” early on in the set, Sufjan brilliantly transitioned into a refrain from “Impossible Soul”, a track from Age of Adz, inducing shouts of approval from the crowd.
Sufjan himself described the show as, “running the gamut of Christmas from the profane to the insane”, and with inflatable unicorns being thrown out at the same show as inflatable Santa’s I’d say it’s a pretty accurate description. The end of Sufjan’s set was haltered by the second fire alarm of the evening, but the band took it all in stride and led the crowd in an a cappella rendition of “Silent Night” divided between males and females in the first two verses followed by a harmonious ending as monitors blasted back to life and the set came to a beautiful end. A roaring ovation from one of the most dense crowds I’ve seen at Haw River resulted in a three song encore of Sufjan originals from Illinois and Michigan. Starting off his encore with a beautiful take on “Concerning The UFO Sightings Near Highland, Illinois”, the crowds anticipation was rapidly rising and greeted with “For The Widows of Paradise” which started as a solo banjo track and blossomed into a full band performance. Closing with fan-favorite, “Chicago”, Sufjan thanked the crowd for being so wonderful and patient, but all thanks is graciously pointed towards Sufjan, the band, and the fine folks of Haw River Ballroom for housing such a beautiful show. It’s very rare to build a sense of community within a single show, but the “Surfjohn Stephenopolous Sing-A-Long” certainly achieved just that.