How Meta is Too Meta?: Sufjan Stevens at UB’s Center for the Arts
Prior to attending Sufjan Stevens’s show in Buffalo, NY at the end of October, I truly thought I had seen it all. My concert repertoire covers a pretty wide (and weird) scope: at past shows, I have endured “Siberian Breaks,” the thirteen-minute long closer to MGMT’s 2010 album Congratulations, survived the raucous banger that was a Run the Jewels show in a crowd of 35,000 people in the Canadian wild, and nearly perished in the midst of a dangerously enthusiastic Girl Talk set. And yet, nothing compares to the spectacle that I witnessed as Sufjan Stevens took the stage at the Center for the Arts. As my friend Kelly aptly stated following the conclusion of the show, “Sufjan is probably a genius; however, he forgets that there are people watching him.” Stevens’ artistic repertoire contains an attempt at composing an album for each of the fifty states, and ultimately abandoning his project after the completion of only two albums (2003’s Michigan and 2005’s Come on Feel the Illinoise). Even armed with this knowledge, I was not prepared for ninety minutes of uninterrupted experimental acoustic folk-rock.
This tour was by no means a “Greatest Hits of Sufjan” concert – the majority of Stevens’ set did not deviate from the Carrie & Lowell theme. Stevens’ latest album, released in early 2015, details his relationship with and the death of his mother. Standout performances include the soft, striking “Should Have Known Better”, lead single “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and the album’s title track. Stevens’ music translates quietly, but the dynamic growth that inherently exists in live shows created a space for the songs to expand, and ultimately transform into entities that stand separately from Carrie & Lowell.
Even still, the set had a tendency to drag. Stevens did not directly address the audience once until the encore, at which point he profoundly apologized for playing songs about the crisis of mortality for over an hour. Furthermore, after presenting the majority of Carrie & Lowell, he shared “Vesuvius”. For those of us relatively new to Stevens and his work, this track from his electronic-crisis album The Age of Adz was a perplexing selection. Following an excruciatingly lengthy instrumental breakdown (that, when coupled with shrieking sound effects and strobe lights, made the audience wonder if we were having a collective hallucination – or worse, epilepsy) Stevens exited the stage, and left in his wake an audience consumed by considerable amounts of both confusion and relief.
However, the show wasn’t over – he returned for an encore, and played in front of a backdrop that prominently featured the Buffalo Bills insignia for maximum levels of audience pandering. This five-song encore returned to Stevens’s earlier albums: he ended the night with an acoustic version of “Chicago”, featured on an album released ten years ago, a welcome addition to the set list for fans of his past projects.
The Center for the Arts, otherwise known as The University at Buffalo’s large all-purpose hall located in the center of campus, was a sound venue both aesthetically and acoustically; however, I left with severe back and neck pain at the expense of the terribly uncomfortable seats that distracted from the entire performance. Furthermore, the hall was too large for an intimate acoustic show; Stevens and his band looked very out of place on stage. The venue contributed to the distance (both literal and figurative) between Stevens and his audience, which increased my suspicion that this show was a thought experiment in the practice of viewing a concert, and that we as an audience were all unwilling participants.
I have survived worse (including my high school graduation) at the Center for the Arts. Despite persistent audience confusion, Stevens knows what he’s about. His uniquely representational lyrics and ambiguous stage presence contribute to his platform: asking his audience what, exactly, it all means through the medium of (extraordinarily bizarre) performance. I’m certain that I will reflect on this concert in much the same way that I have following other concert oddities – as a necessary exercise in perspective that will undoubtedly perplex me for the rest of my existence, which from what I gather, is exactly what Stevens set out to accomplish.