Sufjan Stevens and My Brightest Diamond at the Riv

As much as I liked the 2005 Sufjan Stevens album Illinois — and as much as I enjoyed the concert I saw by him last year at Metro — I had trouble working up much enthusiasm for seeing him this week. Maybe it was because his new album of Illinois outtakes, The Avalanche, is tepid. But he’s undeniably a talented guy, probably a genius at arranging strings and incorporating them into pop music, so this was certainly a worthwhile concert. The cheerleaders from last year were gone, but there was still a sense of spectacle. The 15 musicians backing up Sufjan wore butterfly wings, while Stevens had big bird wings (and wore a feathery bird mask over the top of his head for the opening two instrumental songs). It was postively Peter Gabriel-esque (in a 1972 Genesis sort of way, that is). And then there was that little rooster figure that was sitting on a stool near Stevens throughout the show, which he claimed they’d stolen from a Perkins restaurant earlier on the tour.

This concert focused less on the Illinois songs, but those were the ones that won the biggest applause here in the Prairie State. As I did at last year’s Sufjan concert, I sensed something amazing happening with the music scene. It’s so encouraging to see thousands of young people getting excited and enthusiastic about sophisticated orchestral folk music. I don’t think the worshipful Sufjan cult will necessarily result in a lot of other artists making similar music, but I hope it signals a new willingness to embrace music with unconventional arrangements and musical sophistication that goes beyond the Blink-182’s of the world.

SEE PHOTOS OF SUFJAN STEVENS.

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SEE PHOTOS OF MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND.

Belle & Sebastian and New Pornographers

MARCH 10, 2006
at the Riviera, Chicago

Belle and Sebastian was just about perfection on Friday night. Great selection of songs both old and new – including several early tracks that I didn’t expect to hear, like “Dog on Wheels,” “The State I Am In” and “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” which featured guest vocals from a woman in the crowd. Her husband had e-mailed the band, suggesting that she sing the duet. What a sweet moment, and luckily, the woman (identified only as Amanda) did know how to sing well.

Good opening set, too, from the New Pornographers. What a perfect pairing. These bands come from similar musical places, but their approaches are different. The New Pornographers have a tendency to hammer home every musical hook with a lot of force and doubled (tripled or quadrupled) parts. Yes, it’s a little cheesy, but in the best sense of the term. Even without Neko Case, they sounded great.