Before Sufjan Stevens dies, he wants to record an album about every state in the Union. He started in 2003, and so far he’s covered two: Michigan and Illinois. It will be a long job.
As much work as he has left, Sufjan is having fun along the way. In support of “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!” his current tour is a pep rally for the state, complete with cheerleader outfits, choreographed cheers in honor of Decatur and Jacksonville and a big Superman doll that squeaks into the microphone.
Officially the tour of Sufjan Stevens and the Illinoisemakers, it stopped in Philadelphia for a sold-out show at the Theatre of the Living Arts on September 28.
With six supporting musicians and a world full of instruments, the band can make Sufjan’s most orchestral arrangements and full-throated sing-alongs sound complete or strip everything down for quieter numbers.
The Philly show was composed almost entirely of songs from Illinoise, with two from last year’s Seven Swans – “Abraham” and “To Be Alone with You” – thrown in as well. The Peoria song, “Prairie Fire That Wanders About,” was reduced entirely to a call-and-response cheer.
Most songs, however, included Sufjan’s trademark wild orchestrations. A piano, a Wurlitzer organ, two xylophones, a banjo and something I’ve never heard of that plays like a combination harmonica and accordion all got plenty of time on stage, along with the traditional rock band instruments. They gave the songs musical depth, and they kept the band members trading places between and even during songs.
In the middle of the show, Sufjan pulled out the acoustic guitar for three unforgettable pieces. “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” titled for the Illinoisian serial killer, is all about bringing home the concept of total depravity.
First, Sufjan describes the depth of Gacy’s sin, and the final two lines of the song make it personal: “In my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”
“Casimir Pulaski Day,” named after an Illinois state holiday, is about love and loss, and it comes closest in Sufjan’s work to questioning God. “Oh! the glory when He took our place, but He took my shoulders and He shook my face, and He takes and He takes and He takes,” Sufjan sings alone.
The third song of the centerpiece set was “Chicago,” which in its live version went back and forth, soft to loud to soft again, but always gently. The song is about driving a van to Chicago and New York, sleeping in parking lots, making mistakes, learning and knowing and growing. “All things go! All things go!” shouts the chorus.
Sufjan is an Episcopalian who attends an Anglo-Catholic-oriented church in New York. His Christianity is a huge part of his songwriting, yet in recent months he’s found mass appeal among the indie set. All three of his scheduled tour kick-off shows at Brooklyn’s Bowery Ballroom sold out, and two added shows there sold out as well. His popularity in Philadelphia is not an isolated phenomenon.
The current tour, traveling to Europe soon, has left the Northeastern U.S. But there are rumors of a Rhode Island EP to be released this winter.