Sing lustily and with good courage
Beware of singing as though you were half dead
Or half asleep
Be no more afraid of your voice now
Nor more ashamed of being heard
Than when you sang the songs of Satan.
– John Wesley from Select Hymns 1761
If you listen to the full spectrum of Sufjan Stevens’ music, you will quickly become familiar with his obsession with duality. As he has alluded to in interviews, Stevens finds artistic beauty and tension in the relationships between opposites. The sacred and the secular. The hushed and the bombastic. The spiritual and the carnal. The serious and the silly. Over the course of his decade-long musical career, he has shown that he a man divided between two sets of extremes and he fully embraces that division.
If you read my review of his show at the Orpheum a couple years ago after the release of The Age of Adz, you’ll read about a show that caught much of the audience by surprise as Sufjan chose to spend 95% of his time playing quirky experimental music and almost completely ignored the portions of his catalog that made him famous. Now, Sufjan is back on tour after releasing a brand new, sprawling set of Christmas music last month. In fact, the tour is being billed as Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Singalong Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant On Ice, proving that this tour would be completely different…again.
As the crowd filed into the goofily-named Mill City Nights, we were funneled downstairs to pick up our tickets and sign for them to prove our identity. We were also handed a songbook containing a number of Christmas carols with instructions from John Wesley to sing “lustily” when the time came. We were then summarily ushered up to the main space. I’d never been to this particular venue and was fairly impressed by the organization and friendliness of the staff. The concert space, however, was fairly mundane and featured a number of pillars that obstructed the views from the west side. Later, it became clear that the sound system was pretty buggy too, producing feedback dozens of times and not having certain tertiary instruments mixed sufficiently.
I’ve never seen an “empty” stage so full of stuff before. The view was dominated by a 25 foot tall spinning wheel with the names of Christmas songs painted around the edge – Wheel of Fortune style. It was also full of kitschy Christmas paraphernalia like animatronic angels, fake Christmas trees, inflatable Santas and lots of confetti and bells. All that plus dozens of instruments crowded the deserted stage.
The opening act had been billed as Sheila Saputo, some kind of alter-ego for Sufjan-collaborator Rosie Thomas. Now, Thomas is a great folk musician in her own right, so I was fully expecting a musical set (albeit in a more experimental frame). However, Thomas emerged dressed in a strange outfit, a neck brace, a sling on her arm and thick costume glasses. Her set was actually a stand-up comedy routine, performed in character as Sheila Saputo – a wacky, stuttering and impish girl. Her material was quite funny throughout and had the audience in stitches even though we didn’t know exactly what was going on. You can see more of Sheila Saputo in the series of videos Sufjan released in advance of this tour.
As Johnny Cash renditions of Christmas standards played overhead, the stagehands spent 20 minutes getting the instruments and mics checked for the show, which in hindsight is funny since there were so many volume and feedback issues later.
At that point, Sufjan and the band emerged. Stevens was dressed in a tinseled cape and hat with neon tape adorning his jeans and sleeves. He and his 5 equally adorned bandmates quickly launched into the rocker “Christmas Woman” to open the show. As the set progressed, Stevens took time between songs to make ironic observations about the situation and the Christmas season in general. He also, as has been true each time I’ve seen him perform, showed that his incredible musical talent comes with human weakness as well. He couldn’t find the correct piano chords to play one of the carols and opted to let Rosie Thomas belt it out while he actually left the stage and watched from the audience before shyly returning. “Go think about what you’ve done”, needled Thomas as he left. But mostly, Sufjan showed why he’s so much more than a banjo playing songwriter. He favored the piano and synth for most of the show, often placing one hand on each and singing into an Autotune-equipped mic. He was clearly enjoying himself and even threw in his cover of Prince’s “Alphabet Street” for the Minneapolis crowd, quipping that he’d probably be paying royalties for the rest of his life for that one.
At two points during the show, Sufjan would choose someone to go spin the wheel in the back of the stage to determine which song would be played next. The first go around featured band members while the second invited audience members to participate. Each time they would admonish the crowd to chant “Wheel! Of! Christmas!” and each time the crowd obliged. Each of the songs on the wheel was printed in our songbooks and the crowd all sang along loudly each time. Throughout the night, the band would throw inflatable Santas and unicorns into the cheering crowd or hurl confetti from the stage. A bubble machine was unleashed at one point as well as a confetti cannon towards the climax of the show.
The setlist took a few detours away from the wacky Christmas-theme and delved into Sufjan’s back catalog for crowd favorites like “Casamir Pulaski Day” and “Vito’s Ordination Song”, which were beautiful and served to cleanse the palette before going back to the sugary goodness of Christmas songs. The biggest deviations, though, were the few times that the band all put their instruments down and took up songbooks for sight-singing, choral renditions of traditional hymns (which Sufjan said they’d been practicing on the bus). It was beautiful hearing the gregorian chant-like strains of “Lo, How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming” and “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?”. Perhaps it was because the crowd was devoid of scalper tickets or because of the pastoral beauty of the songs, but the audience stood in rapt attention during these songs. And during “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, a song that was not in the provided songbook, it seemed that the entirety of the onlookers joined in song unprompted. It’s not often that I attend a concert in a downtown music club where the entire crowd sweetly sings together “praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, mount of thy unchanging love.”
As quickly as they came, those quiet moments past and we were launched back into the raucous spirit with songs like “Christmas Unicorn”, the acid-laced meandering behemoth of a song that closed the set as Sufjan climbed around stage and walked on his piano. The Flaming Lips would have been proud.
In the middle of the set, Sufjan noted that the setlist was a little bipolar as he had placed a song by Bach right next to an experimental rocker. But, as I stated, that kind of dichotomy is really the name of the game for Stevens. At one point in the show, he took a moment to comment on the nature of Christmas and how it’s a strange and wonderful holiday. You have the holy origins with a virgin birth and the Christ child and then you have Santa and Frosty and consumerism all wrapped up in one big messy package. Stevens deftly struck the balance between the two extremes at this show, giving equal value to the theological truth of the incarnation and to the goofy lore of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. But, for me, the quote that I started this review with is the key. John Wesley advised singers to sing the hymns lustily and with the same abandon as they used to sing before they were saved. So looking to the silly secular Christmas songs, we can better equip ourselves to sing joyfully of the advent of our salvation at Bethlehem. And going a step further, when we clearly examine the empty kitsch of these, according to Wesley, “satan songs”, we can even more vividly appreciate the hope and light found in the songs about Jesus birth. Have anyone ever been moved to worship by singing “Holly Jolly Christmas”? Not likely. But sing that song and then sing “O Holy Night” and the dichotomy of the who may serve to illustrate how you were once an orphan who has now been adopted into the family of Christ by the death of the one who was born sinless in a barn.
So Christmas, as Sufjan Stevens displayed, is a time for wild celebration and joy, but it is also a time for quiet reverence and awe. It’s both. I’m sure that for many attendees, it was all about the Christmas unicorn and the balloons and the rest. What I will remember from the night was hearing a crowd of 300 young people belting out hymns on a Wednesday night in a Minneapolis bar like the angel choir in the pasture outside Bethlehem. What an incredible and worshipful experience!
And the tension between those two worlds is even further realized in the fact that this infant lying in the manger was sent here for a specific purpose: to die a horrible death on a cross for the sake of all sinners.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!
I couldn’t keep track of the actual setlist, but here are some songs that definitely were played. I’ll update if I find a correct setlist.
Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!
Do You Hear What I Hear?
How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?
Joy to the World
Auld Lang Syne
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Holly Jolly Christmas
Casimir Pulaski Day
The Child With the Star on His Head
That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Lo, How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming
Mr. Frosty Man
Ah Holy Jesus
Justice Delivers Its Death
Christmas in the Room
And an encore that I wasn’t able to stay for.