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ISSUE 119 VOL 2 PUBLISHED 9/23/2005

Stars, stripes and Stevens forever: Sufjan Stevens plays to packed house at First Avenue

By Emily Peterson
Contributing Writer

Friday, September 23, 2005

Few musicians genuinely evoke feelings of American pride in their audience. Sufjan Stevens is one of them. For his concert this past Sunday at First Avenue in Minneapolis, Stevens took the stage clad in an American flag print suit. Flanked by his bandmates, the Noisemakers (wearing homemade cheerleading costumes), Stevens and band transported their audience back to the days of high school pep rallies and hometown honor. The purpose of the show was, in the words of Stevens, “[to bring] songs and cheers about the Land of Lincoln.”

Sufjan Stevens and the Noisemakers are currently touring to promote their newly released album, Illinoise, the second installment in Stevens’ ambitious “fifty states project.” Stevens is attempting to create albums about each of the fifty states. Before Illinoise, Stevens recorded Greetings from Michigan, the Great Lake State. Staying within the borders of the Midwest for Illinoise, Stevens continues to create music that portrays Middle America with sensitivity and heart.

After an initial interlude of pompoms and high-kicks, the band positioned themselves for the first of many pre-song cheers. With no introduction by the microphone-shy Stevens, they launched into their song, “The Fifty States.” In this first number, they establish the lighthearted tone of the show: “It’s part of the act/the fifty states/pack up your bags/it’s not too late!” In the song, they mentioned every state by name, eliciting varying degrees of applause (Minnesota took the cake on this one). As Stevens and band danced in unison to their lyrics, the crowd could not help but feel some of that old hometown pride again.

Stevens attempted to keep spirits high throughout the show. Whenever audience energy dwindled, he and the Noisemakers performed a dance routine or attempted a human pyramid. Although this act was enormously entertaining, the musical performances made the show.

The band boasted an eclectic mix of instruments ranging from banjo to trumpet to electric guitar, which they used as the song dictates. Stevens used the entire band for more elaborate numbers such as the choral “Peoria,” but was equally comfortable using only a banjo for “Casmir Pulaski Day,” a song about a friend’s death from cancer.

Besides being a talented musician, Stevens is also a gifted lyricist. His lyrics brought to mind vivid images of small and beautiful scenes that are authentically Midwestern. In “Casmir Pulaski Day,” Stevens described Bible studies and teenage love: “All the glory that the Lord has made and the complications you could do without/when I kissed you on the mouth.” He tapped into the pulse of everyday existence, and transformed the mundane into the transcendent.

One of the primary highlights of the concert was Stevens’ own rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” For his rendition, Stevens played the piano softly; his clear voice acted as the primary instrument. The version was both lovely and moving – a reminder of the potential our country started with and, as Stevens suggested, still possesses.

Stevens completed his concert on a high note, concluding with the song, “Chicago.” As he sang, “You came to take us, all things go, all things go/ to recreate us, all things grow, all things grow…” concert-goers felt the possibility for transformation. As music gave way to applause, you felt filled with a substantially greater love for the Midwest.

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