Review, Photos and Video: Sufjan Stevens at Henry Fonda Theater in LA

Dec 7th, 2012 in Music

Sufjan Stevens, the supremely talented, inspirational and entertaining (until recently, who knew?) music-mastermind brought his superlative six-piece band (including Rosie Thomas, Nedelle Torissi, Casey Foubert, James McAlister, and Ben Lanz) to the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood on Tuesday as a part of his Christmess Sing-a-Long Tour.   To cut to the chase:  it was the most entertainment-fun you can have in the month of December.  On December 4th, all in attendance gladly became Christmas Unicorns.

The sold-out, fresh-faced crowd at the Fonda arrived early and were ready-to-go in Santa hats and good cheer, and ready to abide by the message from John Wesley on the provided Sufjan-missalette (seen below) for the evening’s proceedings.  Don’t most concerts begin with instructions from John Wesley from the 1700s?

At the outset, the stage was littered in all manner of Christmas camp-ery, including blow-up unicorns and Santas (all of which would throughout the night be tossed into the audience by Rosie Thomas and Sufjan), along with a tree, tons of tinsel and, of course, the giant “Wheel of Christmas” that would be spun during the evening to select the carols to be sung.

While we awaited the show proper, Sufjan’s long-time cohort Rosie Thomas came out in character as Sheila Saputo (as seen in Stevens’ hilarious infomercial series for the 58-song Silver & Gold Christmas box set) and riffed comically without taking a breath for 20 minutes.  Thomas may have a career in comedy if this music thing doesn’t work out for her.  Her flip-chart explanation of her “Carols” acronym was tellingly madcap:

C (Carnal Treasure), A (Armageddon [TLR-naturally]), (Revolutions; Restraining Orders), O (One-Night Stands; Operation Desert Storm [TLR-both just say Christmas]); L:  (Lying About Your Age; Losing Your Virginity); S (Seven Swans of Swimming; Swapping Spit).

‘Twas all good, mostly-clean, fun and a perfect warm up for the musical night.

Following Saputo, the band members came on in zombie nun, snow-woman (Thomas), skeletron, superhero-chicken and Santa regalia.  For his part, Sufjan was attired in Grinch t-shirt with plaid flannel and a red cape (the Godfather, if you will, of Christmas a la James Brown).  And the show was on.  First up was the big-sound of Christmas Woman off of  Silver & Gold, with the ensemble immediately conveying that this would be a night of miraculous musicianship, massive sounds, wowing vocals, and shear entertainment.  For his part, Stevens has never sounded better vocally and on keyboards, effects, chimes, banjo, guitar, oboe and kazoo.  Following Christmas Woman was Put the Lights on the Tree from 2008’s Christmas box-set, followed by a straight and reverent Bach hymn (we believe Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light).   After was Stevens’ cunning arrangement of Do You Hear What I Hear? and his sobering original Justice Delivers Its Death (a great new gospel-amongst-the-largesse song).

The show then moved into one of two Wheel of Christmas segments, with its various hallowed and not-so-hallowed carols.  One of Sufjan’s little helpers or an audience member would be called to spin the Wheel and off we were into Carol-world.  Stevens and crew spun everything from Jingle Bells to Auld Lang Syne, to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, to Drummer Boy, to Joy to the World (with its closing segue into Age of Adz’s Impossible Soul).  O Holy Night (the highlight of the Wheel-session) was sung at the top of the audience’s well-formed lungs and noticeably took Stevens and crew aback.  We’ve heard a few (read: 10,000) O Holy Nights, and this was the finest ever.  We will admit to being a tad Grinchy up until this night, but the Wheel helped pull us into the season.

In between and after the Wheel segments, Stevens played his incomparable “real songs,” as he dubbed them (primarily originals, but also innovative arrangements of standards and a straight reading of Come Thou Font of Every Blessing), all of which moved us beyond the holiday-scene into another realm.  Sufjan repeatedly broke out his trademark banjo, acoustic guitar or piano, and took us into more “sacred” song territories (which had been lacking on the Age of Adz tour).  Each of these “real” songs spoke in its own way to the reason behind the season.  At various parts of the evening we heard soul-gripping, affecting renderings of long-time favorites such as  Michigan’s Vito’s Ordination and For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti.

Sufjan and crew ended the set with a Revelatory rendition of new song Christmas Unicorn.  Donned in bike helmet affixed with apropos unicorn horn, and with balloon wings on his arms, Stevens led his band of merrymakers in a true “celebration” of Christmas.  Midway through the song the confetti cannons went off and large red balloons were put into play (veering dangerously close to Flaming Lips territory).  As the confetti rained down, the song transitioned to its (for us) highly-emotive Love Will Tear Us Apart (Joy Division) sing-a-long segment and back again.  And all was right with the world.  Heaven on earth.

After the Christmas Unicorn extravaganza, Stevens came out for an encore of four of his most “real” songs, all from Illinois, and each one strumming the crowd’s heartstrings.  A reverent hush fell over the crowd, which quietly sang along to Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois, John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and Casimir Pulaski DayGacy initially seemed out of place for a Christmas sing, but the song’s punchline (“And in my best behavior I am really just like him”) placed it well within the season.  We had waited seven years to hear Casimir Pulaski Day live, and Stevens’ touching read tore us up (RIP Man of Steele).  The night closed with the always-impressive, mega-sounds of Come On! Feel the Illinoise!

Sufjan never fails to impress, and this night alone made Christmas come alive for us.  And for that, we give thanks.  Check out below the videos from the Fonda that we’ve unearthed so far, presented in order as best we can recall.

Intro/Christmas Woman:

Put the Lights on the Tree:

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Vito’s Ordination Song:

Justice Delivers Its Death:

Sleigh Ride:

Santa Clause Is Coming to Town:

Auld Lang Syne:

O Holy Night

Silent Night:

That Was the Worst Christmas Ever:

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas:

For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fathers in Ypsilanti:

Christmas Unicorn:

John Wayne Gacy, Jr:

Casimir Pulaski Day:

Come On Feel the Illinoise!

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