Age of Wonder: Sufjan Stevens at the Paramount Theatre

Sufjan Stevens performing at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on October 25.

I like to think of myself as a writer, but I have no qualms in admitting I do not possess the skill set to accurately describe Sufjan Stevens and the art that is his performance. His work transcends language. Therefore, his concert at the Paramount Theatre earlier this week can only be characterized as one thing: indescribable.

Seeing the artist in concert was like living in a surrealist painting for an hour and a half. The images Sufjan projected on the screen behind him ranged from futuristic and spaceship themed to flourishing cityscapes to stop-motion narratives with human subjects. While the images had their own glorious life, this surrealist painting was imbued with a cacophonous voice that made the whole experience something that was beautiful and transcended reality.

Trite descriptions aside, amid all of the cacophony, the artist’s songs were full of hope and heartbreak, youth and perspective. Mainly performing tracks from his newest album The Age of Adz and from All the Delighted People, his EP released earlier this year, Sufjan proved himself an artist whose true talents are best showcased live.

Sufjan incorporated the futuristic, outer-space themed artwork of Royal Roberts into his performance.

Inside the Paramount Theatre, the historic venue that was appropriately historic and beautiful for the concert.

The concert opened with “Age of Adz,” the titular track from Sufjan’s new album. What transpired throughout the rest of the evening was truly art in motion, art that was visceral and that reached the cores of the hundreds of individuals in the theatre. It may have taken eleven people on stage to produce that art, but Sufjan lived up to the matter-of-fact statement he made after the first song: “I am here to entertain you for the evening.”

A brief clip of “Age of Adz,” the song that opened the concert.

I keep referring to the artist by his first name because, by the end of the evening, my concert companion and I felt like Sufjan allowed the audience to get to know him. In between songs he often addressed everyone in the theatre, talking about his inspiration for a particular song—this sharing came in both the form of banter and lecture.

Sufjan described his songs as being about love, heartache, touch, feeling and sensation—“All the important things.” Describing every song as a love song, Sufjan said that with each track he wrote, he ended up feeling very juvenile—as if he was going through a second puberty because of the angst-y subject matter he was dealing with. While he may have spoken about the sentimentality of his work, Sufjan also used self-deprecating humor to talk of himself and his outfits (which involved lots of neon kitsch accessories that glowed in the dark). At one point the performer said he felt like an exquisite corpse-like compilation inspired by Olivia Newton John, Cats, Richard and Gene Simmons, and the Smurfs.

Sufjan in his traditional spunky and funky street savvy garb.

Sufjan also talked about the inspiration behind his songs as well as the images and graphics that complimented his performance. The primal and instinctual kinds of experiences and sensations evident in the artist’s songs come from Royal Roberts, a soothsayer and artist from the south who claimed he could see into the future. Eventually, Roberts became a paranoid schizophrenic who abandoned his wife and children and isolated himself during the last two decades of his life. Sufjan described Roberts as a man confused between reality and fantasy, a man with his own visionary conquest who employed the vernacular of the apocalypse.

Those basic needs and sensations from which Roberts produced his work also informed Sufjan’s songs. Each track was vivacious and simultaneously lyrically haunting. “Too Much” and “Vesuvius” were favorites, complimented with amazing graphics and the artist’s dance moves my companion (the ever-fabulous Mary Breffle) described as being slightly Napoleon Dynamite-esque in nature. Sufjan also performed “Impossible Soul,” a 25-minute long epic he described as his “magnum opus.”

Many different images and graphics were projected onto a large screen behind the band, adding to the overall surrealistic feeling of the performance.

Sufjan performing “Vesuvius,” a song that is haunting; I think this clip displays how very talented the artist is in a variety of areas.
“Chicago,” the song that ended the first set.

By the end of the evening, one thing was certain: Any musician can provide an escape, but Sufjan Stevens moved beyond the definition of “musical artist.”

While I cannot truly encapsulate what it was like to be at Sufjan Stevens’s concert, what I can say is that the artist created a beautiful, enthralling surrealistic escape for his fans. In this departure from the real and mundane, the audience got to know Sufjan for the angst-y musical genius that he is. Perhaps the greatest gift the artist gave his audience, however, was the opportunity to be part of an art form that was reverential and avant-garde, an art form that flourished with each drumming of the guitar string and became more powerful with every impressive moment that passed.

And while that performance can only be replayed in the imagination, there are always the songs themselves—as well as YouTube clips—to keep Sufjan’s surrealism alive.

The billboard outside the Paramount merely teasing at the glory within the theatre. All photos by the author.

Scott Hovdey
BARE Reporter

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