When Sufjan Stevens hosts a pep rally, expect spirit games, choreographed cheers, crowd chant-alongs, cascading balloons, goofy uniforms and perfectly rehearsed, full-band slams. Two deep into his quest to commemorate all 50 U.S. states (with slightly more dynamism than their respective quarters), Stevens has already had to fend off plenty of naysayers eager to scream “Gimmick!” But the Illinois tour embraces Stevens’ kitsch-gone-tender bent, taking state-fair tomfoolery to new levels of inanity. The results are oddly glorious.
The stage at New York’s Bowery Ballroom was decorated with hand-painted signs announcing “Sufjan Stevens and the Illinoisemaker Choir Pep Rally!” that flanked an Illinois state flag, graciously hung mid-stage. Introduced by a whistle-toting M.C. named “Coach,” Stevens and his band wore matching Illinois uniforms (girls in cheerleading skirts with pom-poms, dudes in sweatpants and wrist bands), and sported giant white bandages, dutifully obliging “Fake an Injury Night.” (Each of Stevens’ five sold-out shows at the Bowery boasted a different spirit trick—backwards day, pirate night, fake tattoo or facial hair, and finally “formal”). Stevens wore a bike helmet the entire show, occasionally snapping and unsnapping the chin strap, and finally pulled off his giant bandage to reveal an actual pink scar, wincingly earned in a Brooklyn Bridge bicycle mishap. The band members, clutching their respective trumpets, bass, drums, guitars, glockenspiels, triangles and banjos crowded a canary-yellow Baldwin piano, their sprawl compounded by a big Fender Rhodes and a mess of music stands. Still, all those accessories never trumped the band’s sound. Filing through the highlights of Stevens’ latest, Illinois, the band’s arrangements were remarkably coherent; impressively, Stevens managed to perfectly translate complex, heavily-orchestrated chamber pop to the sticky stage of a downtown rock club.
Stevens opened with the “50 States Theme Song” (instantly, cloyingly familiar to anyone who has ever visited his website.) His backup singers purr and coo, Stevens chanting “It’s part of the act / The 50 states,” grinning and dissipating any potential discomfort with all the shtick. Despite the earnestness of his records, Stevens is a remarkably casual live performer, moving through his songs with ease and grace. The largely acoustic “Decatur” was nearly a capella at parts, punctuated by a piercing trumpet solo; “Jacksonville” benefited from extra banjo and a crowd cheer of “J-A-C-K-S-O-N-V-I-L-L-E!” “Casimir Pulaski Day” was just as hauntingly sad as it is on record, all acoustic guitar and Stevens’ quiet, devastated voice. Stevens’ encore of Seven Swans’ “All the Trees of the Field will Clap their Hands” (the only non-Illinois song of the evening), ditched its modest banjo origins to embrace a full-band blowout. Given the scope of both Illinois and its founding project, it’s only appropriate that Stevens’ live show is so weirdly spectacular: Be true to your school.