Sufjan Stevens

Music Reviews Sufjan Stevens
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Sufjan Stevens

Before Sufjan Stevens walked onto the Austin City Limits stage, producer Terry Lickona revealed a surprising fact about the acclaimed singer/songwriter: This would be Stevens’ first television performance. This is surprising when you consider the critical praise that has been heaped on the artist over the past couple of years, but he could not have picked a more appropriate venue. The intimacy of ACL’s studio perfectly conveyed Stevens’ understated, emotional ballads and sweeping, history-tinged orchestral pieces. As he and his 14-piece band took their places, there was an air of almost amateur awkwardness. Strangely attired with butterfly wings on their backs (except for Stevens who wore bird wings), the collective launched into the familiar string parts of “Jacksonville” from 2005’s Illinois, and all doubts fell away.

Banter between songs was kept to a minimum, furthering Stevens’ reputation as a somewhat reluctant “star.” However, he did take time to dedicate “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head” to fellow native Jack White, whose band The Raconteurs taped their ACL performance the same night. “Detroit” was a true highlight of the evening with its sing-and-respond lyrics and syncopated rhythms enthusiastically played by a very talented group of musicians.

Stevens rotated from piano to guitar to banjo, which he strapped on at one point, explaining, “This next song is about a famous Polish American revolutionary war hero named Casimir Pulaski.” Although it was a decidedly beautiful rendition of one of his most touching songs, Stevens showed he likes to keep audiences guessing just as he does on his albums. In this instance, it was the fact that the song’s story takes place on Casimir Pulaski Day, but has nothing to do with the actual war hero himself.

Stevens may never finish his ultimate plan to record an album for each of the fifty states, but there is heavy imagery of American heritage in his band’s performance, with the Salvation Army style uniforms only enhancing the picture. One gets the feeling that if Aaron Copland were alive today, he would be one of Sufjan Stevens’ biggest fans.