Baroque-folk auteur Sufjan Stevens and his 11-member musical circus worked a bit of magic Thursday at Hilbert Circle Theatre. They took Stevens' brilliant but oblique new electronic album and gave it the warm campfire glow that keeps his fans in rapt devotion.
Although the carefully sequenced and choreographed two-hour-plus show was dominated by cuts from current release The Age of Adz, the sold-out crowd greeted new material with the same enthusiasm as the handful of established favorites that were sprinkled in.
Dividing his time among synthesizer, banjo, and electric and acoustic guitars, Stevens led a mini-orchestra that included other guitars and keys, two drum kits, two trombones, two singer-dancers and yet another dancer. Asthmatic Kitty labelmate D.M. Stith, after opening the night with an impressive and too-brief acoustic/electric solo set, joined the ensemble as pianist and sometimes co-lead singer, reinforcing the melodies at the heart of Stevens' songs.
The visual presentation included rear-mounted stage lights that cast giant shadows of the petite dancers on the auditorium walls, and a large backdrop screen showing synchronized video of abstract images and cartoonish space-scapes inspired by the work of outsider artist Royal Robertson.
The now-deceased Robertson was a muse for the new album, as Stevens explained at great length in introducing his homage, "Get Real Get Right." The artist's life ended tragically in schizophrenia and paranoia, but his apocalyptic drawings helped lead Stevens away from bookish conceptual songwriting to a more instinctive exploration of elemental sounds and rhythms.
"Maybe you thought you were coming to see a folk musician," he quipped to the audience. "A lot of this music was not intentional, but accidental."
The long introduction temporarily slowed the show's momentum, but the song -- with its foreboding call to "get right with the Lord" -- was a highlight, thanks in no small part to a seizure-inducing video barrage of Robertson's sci-fi imagery.
Although Stevens at one point chided himself for his rambling segues, promising "less talk, more rock," the between-song banter was central to the night's engaging vibe. His self-deprecating humor charmed the crowd and lightened the new material's doomsday scenarios.
And despite the visual flash and the crowd of talent onstage, the spotlight instrument was Stevens' clear tenor, which soared atop an excellent sound mix.
The show hit its peak with the multisegmented suite "Impossible Soul," which closes the new album. Stevens described it as "my 25-minute epic miniseries in public behavorial psychotherapy." It brought the folks to their feet, where they stayed for the main set's crowd-pleasing closer, "Chicago," from the celebrated 2005 album Illinois.
The encore, a mostly acoustic four-song set, included what seemed to be a deviation from the tour's standard script: Lyric sheets in hand, the backup singers joined Stevens and his guitar at the front of the stage for a barely amplified performance of the touching "Casimir Pulaski Day" from Illinois and "The Dress Looks Nice on You" from 2004's Seven Swans. The concert hall's stellar acoustics, which Stevens had praised earlier, carried every note with ease.
Though he initially took the stage in glittery pants and a silver jacket with attached angel wings, he ended the night in jeans and a T-shirt, alone with an acoustic guitar for the beautiful and chilling "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."
Who can close a concert with a serial killer ballad and still leave his fans giddy? Sufjan Stevens can.