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October 5, 2009 / Ryan Cohick

A breathtaking Sufjan Stevens performance at the Bowery Sunday night



My title doesn’t lie. Last night, Sufjan Stevens played his first of four performances in New York City to a crowd so eerily quiet that you could hear an audible gasp of excitement when he played “Casimir Pulaski Day,” the fourth song of the evening. I’ve never been to a concert before where I found myself wondering what kind of chatter is usually heard in between songs.

Although my friend and I had a tough time trying to decipher why the crowd was so quiet, I have a bit of a hypothesis…

First, think of the premise. Stevens intended this tour for the fans. He chose only small venues (according to fire code signs, the Bowery had either 500 or 700 people in it last night); he made it extremely difficult for scalping and reselling by doing a 100% will call system (although I did happen to see a few printed ticket stubs) and limiting the sale to two tickets per Ticketmaster order; and the tickets sold out within a half-hour of going on sale, meaning plenty of people (myself included) were sitting at their computers waiting to click ‘Purchase.’ So by the very nature of the premise one can deduce that the audience would be a more serious bunch of fans.

My other theory makes sense for me. I became a huge fan of Stevens four years ago just after “Come on Feel the Illinoise” came out. From that point onward, I was in love with Stevens’ music, but knew very little about the man himself. So seeing him on Sunday took my love for the music to a whole new level. I now got to see the source, and that even live his music can captivate. It felt like pure emotion was flowing off the stage. Despite the raw energy coming from the stage, it never felt forced or over-the-top. Stevens and his backup band all seemed to fit together nicely and almost effortlessly created the amazing sound they delivered.

Regardless of why the crowd was so quiet, I could definitely feel the electricity and awe everyone was feeling as they listened and watched Stevens for two hours. There were a few moments when the silence was broken that I found interesting. First, the audible gasp from everyone at the beginning of the set. The second was after Stevens played one of his new songs. I believe it was “Age of Adz,” which was pretty incredible, albeit somewhat different from the twangy Stevens I’ve grown used to. Before the song, Stevens said something along the lines of, “This is a new song. I hope you like it.” Afterwards, the audience clapped and cheered and then quickly quieted down. At that point, someone yelled out (they didn’t have to yell very loudly to be heard), “We did like that song!” It was a moment that made everyone smile and realize that the concert was that intimate. Finally, the third silence-breaking moment happened when someone dropped a coin. It could be heard throughout the entire venue.

In the end, Sunday’s Sufjan Stevens concert might go down in my book as one of the best concerts ever. I wish that I could have taken a whole bus load of people to the concert with me so that they could have experienced the awe-inspiring moment that I will always remember being a part of. Even if such an amazing atmosphere isn’t recreated, I look forward to seeing Stevens again, because just having him on stage will be awe-inspring enough.

Did any of you ever get to see Stevens in concert? If so, what kind of experience did you have? I got indication from a friend on Twitter that the silent and respectful audience was an oddity, especially for a concert in New York City. The friend attended one of his Philadelphia performances and said that she didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

For those of you that want to try to recreate the experience, here’s the playlist from the evening. I know that thanks to last night I have a much greater appreciation for “Seven Swans” and “Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State.”

Bowery Ballroom October 4, 2009 setlist: (via “Look at me, I made a blog” and “Brooklyn Vegan“)

The Mistress Witch from McClure (or The Mind That Knows Itself)
Impossible Soul*
The Transfiguration
Casimir Pulaski Day
All Delighted People*
All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands
Age of Adz*
To Be Alone With You
The Dress Looks Nice On You
Majesty Snowbird
Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)

Encore 1:
John Wayne Gacy Jr.

Encore 2: (solo banjo)
Lakes of Canada (Innocence Mission cover)

* new song

And finally, you should head on over to Stereogum’s post on Stevens’ new songs. Of the three that he played at the Bowery, “Age of Adz” might have been my favorite. The song was dark and disjointed, allowing for Stevens’ voice to pull the audience through as the song attempts to pull together only to break apart again. It was really quite interesting. “All Delighted People” was pretty incredible as well, providing plenty of chills to run up and down my spine.


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