by Josh Bis
on Mon, Dec 10, 2012 at 10:28 AM
Sufjan Stevens, Christmas Unicorn
Sufjan Stevens and a band of misfit merrymakers (superman chicken, zombie nun, skeleton santas, Beirut's Ben Lanz as one of two trombone players, Rosie Thomas in the form a bass-playing snowwoman sidekick) landed their sleigh at the Neptune on Saturday night for the Seattle installation of Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice. Once the early-arriving around-the-block crowd made it through the theater's door, they (we) were greeted with a unicorn-clad "Christmess" songbook containing the lyrics to several holiday classics, inscribed on its front cover with the fourth instruction from John Wesley's Select Hymns:
Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sung the songs of Satan.
The audience, many bedecked their finest reindeer antlers, fair isle sweaters, battery powered strings of holiday lights, santa hats, rosy cheeks, jingle bells or acoustic guitars, were the sort who won the mad scramble that sold out the show in a matter of minutes and who were very likely to have done their (OK, our) homework by watching the whole series of "bonkers" infomercials to arrive prepared to follow these guidelines to the letter.
When Sufjan finally appeared at around nine, following a couple hours of listening to holiday dirges piped through the house mix interrupted only by a brief and confusing "performance" from "Sheila Saputo"1, the audience was elated and Ready to Sing-Along. Although I am not particularly a "fan" of Christmas, or of Christmas music, or really of singing in general, my enthusiasm for All Things Sufjan2 had me irrationally exuberant about this event and Fully On Board for Holiday Musical Merriment, particularly because the show opened with what might be my very favorite modern carol, "Come on! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance."
About half of the show was consumed by Sufjan singing highlights from the Christmas EPs, a mix of traditional and deconstructed classics as well as songs of his own creation. Some blocks were more Seasonally Affective Disorderly than others ("Sister Winter," Rosie Thomas as a psychotic snowman, "The Child with a Star on his Head" as the room filled with bubbles); others sometimes slipped in breaks for whispery delicate tracks from the non-holiday albums that nevertheless felt at home among them ("Vito's Ordination Song").
The other half was a singalong left to fate, in the form of the mind-bogglingly massive Wheel of Christmas that was often set in manic incongruously tracked—"Dallas," "Smells Like Teen Spirit"—motion by young guests from the audience. Appeasing the decision of the great wheel, the crowd vigorously and/or drunkenly belted out holiday standards under the guidance of confetti wands, inventive arrangements, and general leadership from the stage. The Neptune's sometimes troublesome acoustics were ideal for a room full of people belting out carols in surprisingly un-pitchy fashion.
The show culminated with Sufjan's transformation into the Christmas Unicorn—an amazing and ludicrous costume made mostly from balloons and a decked-out helmet, with a healthy serving of streamers an inflated mylar tail for good measure—and performing an epic manifesto about the struggle to reconcile this polytheistic ultra-commercialized globe conquering devoutly religious choose-your-own-adventure holiday called Christmas. As the song ramped up to its Joy Division mash-up finale, cannons filled the air with confetti while inflatable santas and rainbow-horned unicorns were hurled into a souvenier-greedy crowd. Though this must sound completely cornball and cultlike—but that doesn't mean that it wasn't also just utterly delightful.
After the magical main set, Sufjan returned to play a few non-holiday songs on his own ("To Be Alone with You" from Seven Swans and "Concerning the Ufo Sighting Near Highland, Illinois," "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." from Illinois) and finished with the whole band boisterously performing "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!"3 I counted it as a moment of personal restraint that I made it out of the venue without trying to steal or bribe a child to hand over one of those inflatable figures.
Notes: 1Rosie Thomas performing a comedy routine as character whose history involves traumatic brain injury, the less said the better. 2Without setting aside the strict LineOut editorial position against the soul patch, even in minimal form. 3Though I was secretly hoping to hear something from Age of Adz, the only hint from that record was a tiny riff from "Impossible Soul" thrown into one of the deconstructed carols.
"continue reading" to see some more Sufjan glamour shots.