Winged Victory

Paul Karner

“We’re still getting used to having wings,” Sufjan Stevens uttered into the mike as he carefully maneuvered from his piano to his guitar with a four-foot set of eagle wings attached to his back. “Man wasn’t supposed to have wings,” he added.
Backed by a 17-piece band including strings, horns, piano, guitars, drums and a prominently placed celeste, Stevens performed to a remarkably attentive sold-out crowd Monday at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee.
Majesty Bird and the Chinese Butterfly Brigade–the moniker by which Stevens introduced the band–were quite a sight to see: Each musician donned a Boy Scout-esque uniform fitted with a colorful set of costume butterfly wings.
The subject of birds was a consistent theme throughout the evening. The highlight perhaps was a performance of “Majesty’s Songbird,” a new song with some of Stevens’ richest orchestrations to date, which he has referred to as a sort of theme song for his current lineup.
The show also included a performance of “The Lord God Bird,” a song about the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Brinkley, Arkansas. The song was commissioned by two independent radio producers as a way to witness the artists’ writing process and later debuted on NPR’s “All Things Considered” in July of 2005.
The set contained songs from both the “Michigan” and “Illinoise” records with a few selections from his less publicized “Seven Swans.” He also played a number of tracks off his most recent release “The Avalanche” (2006, Asthmatic Kitty) that featured the remaining unreleased tracks from the “Illinoise” recordings.
The evening concluded with an encore in which Stevens and three other band members returned in jeans and T-shirts for a humble performance of the dark and reflective “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and a quietly anthematic “Chicago.”
As the band fluttered through some of the most lush performances of Stevens’ otherwise rather quaint folk songs, there was a noticeable element of the absurd that seemed to draw the audience even closer to the curious man behind all the spectacle.
The audience themselves, a rather homely bunch, sat comfortably in their padded theatre seats. Some quietly sipped pint cans of PBR as though they were glasses of Chardonnay and gazed at their beloved yet puzzling Sufjan.
With an unbelievable knack for melting playfulness and irony into deeply rooted narratives both on a lyrical and musical level, Stevens has become one of the most undisputedly acclaimed artist to ever emerge from the underground without losing his inscrutability that has kept fans hanging on his every move.
What began as a modest collection of quaint yet colorfully arranged folk musings and a rumored hackneyed plot to record an album for each of the 50 states has since launched Sufjan Stevens on a whirlwind trip of indie-rock superstardom. The current tour was spurred by a surprising evening of performances by Stevens at the Lincoln Center in New York in January.
The performances were the first to include such a large ensemble and the unassuming artist from Michigan embraced it wholly. In an online interview after the performances, Stevens was quoted to say, “It was the first time I felt like the songs were fully realized live. But if that’s what’s required, I’m not sure I can do that.”
Months later, however he proved he could and embarked on his current tour, receiving unadulterated awe and approval at every stop. Regardless of how uncomfortable Sufjan Stevens may feel in his new set of wings, fans and critics alike seem to agree that they are a perfect fit.