The first thing I saw when I arrived at Track 29 to see Sufjan Stevens was an extremely long line of eager fans trailing down into the parking lot, waiting to get into the venue. And they were singing Christmas carols. Before even stepping foot into Track 29, the show had begun.
Chattanooga was the fifth stop on Stevens’ 24-show North American tour, called The Sufjan Stevens Christmas Sing-a-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice, supporting his recently released five-EP Christmas boxed set, "Silver and Gold."
Inside, I discovered concertgoers of all ages, many of them dressed in highly tacky Christmas sweaters, Santa hats and elf costumes—with one fan even wearing an elaborate unicorn mask.
When the lights faded, fans cheered as opener Sheila Saputo came out dressed as a nun or one of the three wise men (I couldn’t tell). I was a bit confused when she starting telling jokes with a speech impediment. She did that for about 20 minutes and then left the stage. It made more sense once I realized it was actually Rosie Thomas, one of Stevens’ bandmates. Actually, I take that back. No, it didn’t.
Stevens came out onstage with his five-piece band, including Thomas, Nedelle Torrisi, Casey Foubert, James McAlister and Ben Lanz, all of them dressed in various, ridiculous costumes. And that’s when Stevens greeted us with "Try as you may, there's another Christmas around the corner to ruin your life all over again." The crowd cheered, and the band played.
Stevens played mostly songs from "Silver and Gold," along with his 2006 Christmas boxed set "Songs for Christmas." And it truly was a sing-a-long. With the aid of his "Wheel of Christmas"—a giant, colorful wheel with titles of various Christmas carols on it, much like the one you’d see on "Wheel of Fortune," Stevens led the audience in beautiful and sometimes sonically altered, auto-tuned renditions of classics such as “We Need a Little Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride.” There was also a tuba involved.
Standout songs include a beautiful version of “O Holy Night,” which started off with just piano and Stevens’ voice and then went to full band mode, including kazoo; “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with its guitar-jam interlude; the punk-influenced “Mr. Frosty Man;” and two songs from a couple of his non-Christmas-themed albums, “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and “Chicago.”
“The Sirfjam Stephanapolous Christmas Sing-a-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Spectacular Music Pageant Variety Show Disaster,” as it’s called on his label’s website (he’s messing with us, isn’t he?) was a much different experience than I was expecting that night, which is not to say it was bad. On the contrary, it was a concert experience I won’t soon forget, even if I try.
Stevens is a very talented and multilayered musician and songwriter. At times, the show was like a joyous, family sing-a-long, and during others, it was as awkward as a dysfunctional family Christmas can be. And I think that was Stevens’ point at the beginning of the show. All of it—the gigantic red balloons floating through the crowd, the inflatable unicorns, the absurdity of it all—is what Christmas has become: a spectacle. But much like Stevens’ show, it is a spectacle that, at its core, brings peace, joy and good music.
Check out my ChattaPop column on Monday, when I delve into my Stevens-induced religious awakening.
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.