Sufjan Stevens, the Michigan-born, Brooklyn-dwelling indie idol with a restless and expansive musical imagination, has finally played a show in Buffalo.
He walked onto the stage at Babeville’s Asbury Hall on Tuesday night in a festive robe, which he later took off to reveal a T-shirt advertising Buffalo’s erstwhile “Talkin’ Proud” tourism campaign, and declared himself “Captain Christmas.” And the sold-out crowd filled the venue with its pent-up applause.
Stevens went on to more than return the favor across an ecstatic evening that caromed from beautiful a capella versions of ancient German hymns and sensitive acoustic ballads about winters long past to techno-futuristic fantasies that seemed only vaguely connected to the holiday.
The occasion for Stevens’ visit was a cleverly engineered and totally unhinged holiday concert, tongue-in-cheekly dubbed “Sufjan Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice.”
If the title seems purposely overdone, that’s because the show was, too. After a brief and often-hilarious opening set from comic Sheila Saputo as a holiday-obsessed woman who can’t help but over-share, Stevens took the stage, named himself “Captain Christmas” and was off and running.
He kicked the show off with the mystical “Christmas Woman” from his recently released 58-track project “Silver and Gold,” followed by the bouncy fan favorite “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!”
He took a tour through his dozens of original Christmas tunes (though ostensibly no fan of the holiday, he’s been releasing yearly Christmas EPs for quite a while now). The best of these, bar none, is a strange, attenuated and digitized version of “Do You See What I See,” as if sung by Johnny-Five from “Short Circuit.” At times it seemed to pause and resume in skitters, buffering itself like a YouTube video.
The sing-along portion of the evening, much to the crowd’s delight, featured a gargantuan spinning wheel with various Christmas classics painted on it. A member of the band spun the wheel and sang the song it landed on.
This being Stevens, however, these were not the normal renditions of the beloved tunes of old. His band changed keys in the middle of “Joy to the World,” rearranged “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” into a strange waltz and turned “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” into some manner of military dirge.
Though he clearly was having fun screwing around with the classics, he didn’t make it too hard for the crowd to follow along. So everyone in that crowd, which viewed from above became a sea of demurely bobbing Santa hats and ironically ugly sweaters, ate it up.After the sing-a-long, Stevens and his capable musicians treated that crowd to “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fathers in Ypsilanti,” one of his most beloved songs from Michigan, the album that put him on the indie/folk radar in 2003. The gorgeous “Sister Winter,” a song Stevens said was about seasonal affective disorder but which plumbs other emotional depths as well, was beautifully wrought.
The whole bipolar evening – even the kitschy stage flanked by huge sheets of silver Mylar and bedecked with animatronic angels and flickering menorahs – seemed just right.