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Sufjan Stevens - Bush Hall, London, 10/6/2004

  by Anthony Dhanendran

published: 14 / 6 / 2004

Sufjan Stevens - Bush Hall, London, 10/6/2004


At a busy Bush Hall in London, Michigan-based psychedelic folk singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens eventually explains why he has come on wearing a pair of angels' wings, and also manages to pack in a geography lesson

Sufjan Stevens takes the stage at a sweaty, packed Bush Hall wearing a remarkable,flailing pair of angels' wings and carrying a guitar. While he has a band featuring a drummer and two female backing singers, he comes on initially alone. His style, as it is on record, is a hippy psychedelic-folk hybrid, similar to that of his New York contemporary Devendra Banhart. In looks, however, Stevens and Banhart couldn’t be more different – while Devendra Banhart looks the hippy part, all crazy hair and beard, Stevens looks like he’s just stepped off the set of teen drama The OC. It’s slightly off-putting to find such a clean-cut guy singing this genially warped music, but not for long. As the song finishes, having first segued into another involving him onstage alone , the wall behind the stage lights up with a hand-drawn map of Stevens’s home state, Michigan, beamed from an overhead projector on the stage. He proceeds to give a short talk on Michigan and how it is comprised of two peninsulas, as we can see from the map. “We’d like to sing a song about the upper peninsula,” he says, and he and the band then do just that. The map and the state are to make a few more appearances tonight – in fact, as it proceeds, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not so much a gig as a musical travelogue. The OHP comes back on after the song about the upper peninsula, accompanied by Stevens’s advice about two towns in the state: Paradise and Hell. In Hell, he says, a good man is hard to find. “That’s my segue into the next song.” By this time, the hall is starting to feel the heat. As if in sympathy to the swampy delta-like conditions, Sufjan Stevens straps on a banjo just as the OHP comes back on again. He talks about Homes – the acronym by which American schoolchildren remember the names of the Great Lakes – Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. He’s full of useful facts – such as the fact that Michigan is the largest state east of the Mississippi River, mainly because it owns so much of the Great Lakes. “This event is sponsored by the Michigan Tourist Board,” he quips, by this time sporting a “Michigan” trucker’s cap, in addition to the wings and the banjo. A strange ensemble indeed. The next two songs he plays are about an old girlfriend of his, he says. One is self-explanatorily titled 'That Dress Looks Nice on You' and the other is dedicated to the same girlfriend’s later wedding to another man, and the tuxedo he wore to the ceremony, "A Size Too Small'. These songs in the middle of the set are in the same dreamy folky style as the rest, the band flitting on and off stage seemingly as the mood takes them. Another slide depicts famous people from Michigan, and then the map comes back, along with a song “for the widows of Paradise, where all the men had died or gone away”. The wings, it turns out, depict seven swans: “We need to explain why we’re all dressed up like this,” he says. He explains how, once, when his family moved out of the trailer in which they lived, his father bought a house, near the 45th parallel, which runs through the top of Michigan. “It’s halfway between the equator and the North Pole, and there’s a lot of magic, magnetic energy around there. Strange things happen – when you cross the parallel you might see a herd of buffalo appear, or you might get in a car crash. So dad bought a house right on the 45th parallel and everything kept breaking. One time we woke up and the back yard was on fire.” In the flames, he says, they saw an image of seven swans. “That’s why we’re dressed up like this. There are only six of us, though, so…” – a picture of a swan appears on the wall – “I drew one for you. That’s the other swan.”

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