Sufjan Stevens: the mad prophet of all kids sad, spiritual and starry-eyed.
Church day is Sunday, no matter where you go — sometimes Wednesday night, too, if you like potluck dinners. But on Tuesday night at Bass Concert Hall, a packed house of pilgrims gathered at the feet of a priest in a trucker hat, a mirror reflecting their personal sorrows back to them, and a dry-witted troubadour of tragic love. Stevens — a man who, through 15 years of devastating folk songs like”Casimir Pulaski Day” and noisy, brass-backed indie quirk like “Chicago,” has become several different kinds of icons to a generation of music fans — seemed all things to all people in a reverent crowd.
The instrumentally prolific Detroit native pulled off his grandest trick of the evening in the first half of the show. Stevens’ new album “Carrie & Lowell” examines his grief over his wayward mother’s death with a stripped-down, acoustic touch, absent any of the lush orchestration or skittering electronic flourishes that marks a large part of his catalog. But live, Stevens struck the perfect balance between his impulses. Minimalist album highlight “All Of Me Wants All Of You” swelled to fit the cavernous space, growing into a maximalist expanse of chiming percussion and post-rock wooziness; at the other end, the childlike melancholy of “Eugene” remained stripped down as on the album, with Stevens’ band leaving him alone on stage with his guitar in a spotlight of sweet isolation. (After many of his harrowing numbers, Stevens wiped his mouth with both hands as if in exhaustion. Conscious gesture or not, it provided the audience with a nice sign of connection to their emotional instigator.)
Highlights of the “Carrie & Lowell” portion of the set included the gutting “Fourth of July,” which morphed into a sternum rattling, fatalistic breakdown of “We’re all gonna die” refrains, as well as an aching, bald-nerved, harmony rich “No Shade In the Shadow of the Cross.” (The line “[Expletive] me, I’m falling apart” exposes a much deeper wound in a giant concert hall than on a pair of Apple headphones.)
With a lion’s share of new album cuts behind him, the ever-wry Stevens spun childhood tales from stage banter into thematic threads. Tales of melting his Star Wars action figures together into Boba Fett-Obi Wan chimeras, turning his toy cars into kerosene-soaked stunt spectacles, and throwing a one-horned family goat named Chairman Mao into the trash fire after it died all stemmed from his first spoken words of the evening — the cheerful sentiment that “Death is the great refinery.”
After a run of old favorites like “To Be Alone With You” and “Futile Devices,” the singer and his band dipped back into the “Carrie & Lowell” well for album and set closer “Blue Bucket of Gold,” which exploded from a quiet grace note into a technicolor phantasmagoria. Other acts could learn a few lessons in encores from Stevens, who truly saved the best for last. A wistful “The Dress Looks Nice On You” broke midway for a joke about sex scenes that flustered Stevens’ singing partner, and “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” likewise delighted. But as predicted, Stevens’ performance of his devastating “Casimir Pulaski Day” pulled the floor out from underneath a concert hall of people silently mouthing every word.
It was not the yarn about an immolated goat corpse that best summarized the evening. It was this, right after rapturous applause for so many quiet songs sized up to match their massive, heart-rending potency, and right before Stevens’ final song: “I used to be terrified by clapping and screaming and loud noises,” Stevens said. “Right now, I think it’s the noise that means the most to me.”