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The best show of ACL weekend wasn’t in Zilker Park, but at the Paramount Theater. Sufjan Stevens took up a two-night, sold-out residency there drawing at least some of the crowd from festival headliners Van Morrison and Massive Attack on Friday and Saturday night. In tow was a twenty-odd piece band, which included Austin’s Tosca Strings Quartet, and My Brightest Diamond as an opener.
There were only a few open seats at the theater, even for the opener, and the number of fans sporting their newly purchased “Ride the Hatch” shirts testified to the audience’s excitement for Sufjan finally making it to Austin. Not even My Brightest Diamond’s disappointing opening set could quell the enthusiasm. Shara Worden offered a brilliant vocal counterpoint in backing Stevens for his set, but on her own in the opening slot, My Brightest Diamond was fairly lackluster. There’s no denying Worden’s powerful voice, which recalls the soaring vocal talents singers like Josephine Foster, but her songs were so saturated with an overly-dramatic inflection that they seemed over-the-top for even the reverent atmosphere of the Paramount. She carried herself with a childishness akin to Joanna Newsom, though it seemed more to be on par with Chan Marshall’s often uncomfortable stage antics. Songs like “Workhorse” or the booming and furious “Something of an End” displayed what Worden is capable of at her best, but they were the exceptions to songs like the dross “Dragonfly” or embarrassingly frenetic “Freak Out.”
All was quickly forgotten, however, when Sufjan took the stage with his band, all adorned with butterfly wings. For this show, he chose to dub himself and the group “The Majestic Snowbird and the Chinese Butterfly Brigade” and the songs were complimented with colorful images and homemade videos projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.
Sufjan opened on a mellow note, hitting the beautiful “Casmir Pulaski Day” and a tribute to his hometown with “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head.”
Also on the setlist was a tune from his upcoming Christmas song box set called “That was the Worst Christmas Ever.” Rather than sticking mostly to material from the much acclaimed Illinoise, the songs ranged over nearly all his albums. “The Transfiguration” and “Sister” from Seven Swans were included, the latter of which was absolutely stunning with Worden at her best in providing the backing vocals. And “The Mistress Witch from McClure (Or, The Mind That Knows Itself)” and “Dear Mr. Supercomputer” off of The Avalanche also made an appearance.
Throughout the set Sufjan jumped from piano to guitar (or banjo), though at one point he attempted the simultaneous piano/guitar combination for a new song he called “Majesty Snowbird” from a “series of songs about birds” that he’s been working on.
Among the few songs from Illinoise were “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is out to Get Us!” and “Jacksonville,” which was accompanied with some home footage from this summer’s touring and their stop at the Sasquatch! Festival – the last place we caught Sufjan back in May. They closed out the set with the crowd-favorite “Chicago,” along with “All of the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands.” The beauty of Sufjan’s
live performances is that even when he has a twenty piece band on stage, he realizes that sometimes the most powerful sound requires only one or two players. But at either his softest or most orchestral, the songs are entrancing and gorgeous.
After an exceptionally long and restless applause, they reemerged wingless and as a four-piece for a two-song encore. After a night of breathtaking tunes, he closed softly with “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “The Dress Looks Nice on You.” It became clear why Sufjan avoids playing festivals and outdoor shows, because being able to experience the full range of his songs in the almost cathedral-like silence is a spiritual experience in its own right.