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Review: Sufjan Stevens at Union Transfer

The Surfjohn Stevens Xmas Sing-A-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant On Ice.”

Sufjan Stevens had a confession to make.

Standing on the stage of Union Transfer on Black Friday night in front of a 12 foot  spinning "Wheel of Christmas," the baroque-folk indie-electronic songwriter was flanked by band members dressed as an angel, reindeer, unicorn, Santa Claus and Superman. It was the opening night of a tour billed as "The Surfjohn Stevens Xmas Sing-A-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant On Ice."

"Ten years ago, when I started recording these Christmas EPs," said the 37 year old Stevens, whose 5 EP 58 song box set Silver & Gold came out last week on his Asthmatic Kitty label. "I hated Christmas music. It was like an exercise in loving your enemy."

Along with projects such as his acclaimed 2005 concept album Illinois, Stevens has spent considerable time "subverting and deconstructing" holiday standards whose titles - "Jingle Bells," "We Wish You A Merry Christmas," and a tongue in cheek "Slay Ride" - were written on the spinning wheel, as well as penning his own often luminously beautiful seasonal tunes. (Silver & Gold is his second holiday box set, following 2006's Songs For Christmas.) Over the years, Stevens said on Friday, he realized his obsession was more than just "a really interesting exercise in craft." In fact, his hate turned to love.

It's a good thing it did, or it might have seemed rather silly for one of the most gifted artists of his generation to spend two hours standing on a stage with silver fringe dangling from his candy cane colored elbow pads.

There was a lot of aimless goofing, but Stevens is sincere both in his affection for Christmas kitsch and more serious minded holiday music traditions that provide a natural vehicle for the open-hearted spiritual questioning side of his work. "This is a psychedelic nightmare to some of you," Steven said to the geeked-out capacity crowd, many who wore Santa, elf, or unicorn headgear. "But to me it's a dream come true."

The two-hour evening was plagued, particularly early on, by poor pacing and sound problems. "We practiced for weeks!" Stevens said at one point, apologetic and incredulous at the rough sledding, adding "We've been doing this for an hour, and it's been the longest hour of my life." All was forgiven by the adoring crowd, but it was apt that the only original non-Christmas song Stevens sang, the autobiographical "Chicago," turns on a repeated mea culpa: "I've made a lot of mistakes."

Thankfully, he also made a lot of compelling music. He played keyboards, guitar and banjo and led a band which featured trombone, tuba, kazoo and a sample of Queen's "We Will Rock You" on "Holly Jolly Christmas." "Mr. Frosty Man" was gnarled garage rock; "Oh Holy Night," a reverent singalong, and Prince's "Alphabet St." an electro funk workout most welcome despite making no thematic sense.

The show gathered momentum by concentrating on sparkling originals like "Sister Winter" and "Christmas in The Room," which put the focus squarely on Stevens' lovely, largely unadorned voice and attempted to locate some essence of Christmas spirit far from the mistletoe-and-holly foofaraw. And it peaked with "Christmas Unicorn," a song that started off plaintively as Stevens examined Yuletide contradictions -  "I'm a Christian holiday, I'm a symbol of original sin / I've a pagan tree and a magical wreath, and a bowtie on my chin" - before merging into an ecstatic mash up with Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."  
Previously: Review: Led Zepplein's Celebration Day Follow in the Mix on Twitter