Donning large multicolored wings, matching suit jackets and baby blue slacks, Brooklyn based singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and his 13-piece band kicked off a two-month North American theater tour last night at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, treating the audience to an hour-and-a-half set filled with new tunes and first-time performances. The sold-out crowd sat silent and attentive while Stevens — ably backed by violin, cello, trombone, bass, and drums — rotated through piano, guitar, and banjo duty.
The set included favorites from his critically lauded folk-rock album Illinoise, plus a host of new songs like the Christmas-themed “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” and the 10-minute epic, “Majesty’s Snowbird.” Bandmate Shara Worden — who opened the show with her side project, My Brightest Diamond — was also on hand to oversee backing vocals and keys. To up the kitsch ante, the stage included a large screen onto which home movies and kaleidoscope images were projected. During “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhhh!,” karaoke-style lyrics appeared on the screen over footage of the classic 1968 horror flick Night of the Living Dead.
After closing with his hometown ode, “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” and the gorgeous Illinoise track “Chicago,” a beaming Stevens left the stage, only to return — amid roaring applause — sans wings and uniform, for an encore. “It’s been a privilege and an honor to be part of this historic building where music has been made for decades, over a century. We’re going to try something different now, without all the bells and whistles,” he told the crowd. With light shining through the stained-glass windows of the former church, Stevens and a downsized three-piece band delicately strummed through Seven Swan‘s “To Be Alone With You” and “The Dress Looks Nice On You” without mics or amps, as everyone in the hushed audience collectively leaned forward on the edge of their seats.