Sufjan Stevens live at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City

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Sufjan Stevens sets up his own gear.

Granted, he probably doesn’t do this every show, but he did so last Monday at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, the second of four intimate shows that the singer-songwriter was playing at the end of a mini-tour. Perhaps it was just out of necessity, but I found it a strange gesture regardless. This is an artist more appreciative of theatricality than most: aside from his concept albums and orchestral bombast on the record, he’s performed with his backing bands in outfits ranging from school uniforms to bird wings.

And yet, there he was, walking around on-stage with the lights on setting up guitars and keyboards, talking casually to fans, a baseball hat in his back pocket like he’s Bruce Springsteen. It’s the most un-rock and roll thing that an artistic can do. ‘Is the no-gimmick gimmick Stevens’ new motif for his next record?’ I wondered.

After we’d heard one or two of the new songs he’s test driving on this tour, I realized what was up: there is no gimmick because I’m not if sure Sufjan Stevens has any idea what his next record is going to sound like.

The four new songs he played at the second Bowery show were all over the place, sound-wise. “All Delighted People” sounded the most like what we’ve come to expect from Stevens, but the other three all varied wildly from the template. “Impossible Soul” was a slow groove, building note by note to its climax. Then there’s “Age of Adz” which is nothing less than a 10-minute Flaming Lips-esque space jam. Finally, there was “There’s Too Much Love” which, for about four minutes, might be the catchiest thing that Stevens has ever done, a rock track that’s almost radio-single worthy. But then even it veers onto a completely different track with a jammy outro.

The way these new songs were scattered throughout the set gave the impression that Stevens is doing more than just test-driving them individually: it’s as if he’s working to figure out how they fit alongside his existing body of work. The transition between songs, ergo, was more forced than you might have at a more orchestrated, ordered show, but that was part of the set’s charm. It was also great to see this loose touring band – which featured Rosie Thomas, Nedelle Torrisi of opener Cryptacize and Bryce Dessner of the National, among others – working admirably to adapt some of Stevens’ more challenging material; “Come On! Feel the Illinoise,” for example, was spectacular in spite of its sloppiness.

A few other observations:

– I’ve rarely seen a standing-room crowd as captivated as I did during the brilliant “Casimir Pulaski Day.” The crowd didn’t immediately cheer when Stevens hit the last note; they paused as he did, almost as if they were hoping the song wasn’t over. It was pretty impressive.

– Also impressive: the sound at the Bowery. Considering at some points there was four horns, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and countless vocalists, every instrument could be heard crystal-clearly.

– “Jacksonville” was awesome. As was “The Mistress Witch from McClure.” And “That Dress Looks Nice on You.” And while Stevens complained that it was “a bit boring” right after he finished it, I quite liked the understated version of “Chicago” he played, though I couldn’t have helped but hope for the more bombastic edition.

Sufjan’s setlist and photos of both Stevens and opener Crypticize after the break…

The Mistress Witch from McClure
Impossible Soul*
All The Trees In The Field Will Clap Their Hands
Come On! Feel The Illinoise
Casimir Pulaski Day
All Delighted People*
Size too Small
The Dress Looks Nice on You
Age of Adz (Victoria?)*
Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!
Jacksonville

Encore:
Chicago (acoustic version)
There’s Too Much Love*

*new songs

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