I’ll admit it — I was nervous for Sufjan Stevens. There he was, about to take the stage at the inaugural Eaux Claire Music Festival, ready to play the type of show he (publicly) despises at the behest (or begging?) of the all-powerful Indie Rock Jesus Justin Vernon. Stevens has never been shy about his anxiety towards large festivals, and considering the highly personal subject matter of his recent magnum opus Carrie and Lowell, the stakes seemed extremely high.
Stevens, currently at an artistic and commercial peak, is in the midst of a massive (and remarkably un-Sufjaneqsue) world tour. I was able to catch an early tour stop in Cleveland and was utterly blown away. However, to be blunt, that show was pretty fucking brutal. As Stevens blew through the full album in the main set, the emotional density of the material swallowed the crowd up, dissolving them into a sea of swollen eyes, teary and sleepy alike. No amount of electronic flourishes could save us, and his last ditch effort to rise us from the ashes (with the closing “Chicago”) fell flat.
Leading up to the festival, I couldn’t help but wonder how this material would fare in a festival setting. Could the audience handle it? Could he handle it?
Well, color me stupid. Stevens, clad in pink shades, a tiger cutoff and his omnipresent trucker hat, absolutely murdered the penultimate festival slot. Flanked by his cracker jack band and a warm Chippewa River Valley sunset serving as backdrop, Stevens wisely veered ever-so-slightly from his recent sets and went with a career-spanning celebration that left the audience screaming for more.
New gems “Death with Dignity” and “Should Have Known Better” were seamlessly paired with old fodder such as “Casmir Pulaski Day” and “The Dress Looks Nice on You.” Special guest Bryce Dessner (The National) seemingly exorcised Steven’s demons once and for all on show highlight “Fourth of July,” where he added enough primal force behind the “we’re all gonna die” refrain to drain any remaining will power the crowd had to attend Bon Iver. The No BS! Brass Band (who guested with practically every artist at the festival) and Dessner’s bandmates Bryce and Bryan Devendorf joined next, turning in rousing renditions of Illinois favorites “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” and “Chicago,” before Stevens left us with a stirring rendition of “Blue Bucket of Gold.”
Incredible concert experiences stay with us. But, for me, this one was different. I finallly felt able to understand the oh-so-elusive Sufjan. Sure, Carrie and Lowell was highly personal, and told the tale of his troubled youth. But, at Eaux Claire, in the context of the rest of his output, its larger meaning snapped into focus.
You know the flashback episode in a prestige TV show, where a character’s long-withheld motivations are finally revealed? Well, that’s Carrie and Lowell. Everything mysterious about Sufjan now made sense. The ‘stunted in adolescence’ wardrobe? The dark lyrics draped in whimsy? The butterfly wings? The obsession with Christmas? Got it. This is a musician opening himself up to the world, sharing why he is the way he is. We finally got the beginning of the story. And I can’t wait to see what happens next
By: Evan Yerenga
Photos By: Mike Diskin