Just be thankful I had a full two days of limited computer access during which time I could divert some of that overflowing enthusiasm into wandering around the Guggenheim and lunching in Little Italy. Otherwise you would have gotten my first reaction after seeing the show, which was to send a gloating text message to my brother: BEST. CONCERT. EVER. And saying something along the lines of: "OMG I want his babiez!*SQUEE!* Heart! Heart! Heart!" to my fellow concert-goer. (In all fairness, she totally felt the same way.)
But just because biology/society/my own (charming) psychosis makes it virtually impossible for me to love something without wanting to procreate with it (the coffee bean and I would make an adorable baby, me thinks) does not diminish the fact that this concert kicked. serious. ass.
Going into it I thought I might need to rely on the "aw, isn't he cute?/at least the second half will be stuff I like" factor to get me through the first part; The BQE is a 30-minute orchestral piece about a road, after all. Having once edited a book on the history of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway (back in a time when I thought hearts and frownie-faces were acceptable editor's marks--and trust me, the margins looked like a pessimist convention by the time I was through marking it up!) I know how (non)exciting roadways can be.
But the moment the showed opened with a bold font projected across the red velvet curtains announcing The BQE had arrived, I knew this was going to be cooler than a few violins swelling poetic around a highway median.
[Much much thanks to metrolens who took these pictures]
Once the curtains rose, the stage was divided by the projection screen above and the orchestra below with Sufjan sitting at the piano on the right side of the stage. The projection screen itself was split into a triptych of images of New York: the weary faces of apartment buildings, a collision of colorful signs, a giant gorilla waving from a car dealership lot. Oh, and hula hoopers.
Not only hula hooping on the video, but live in the theater. There were 5 hoopers: 2 boys and 3 girls who came out as the screen went down, hiding the still-playing orchestra and showing off their moves. (Where there's a will, there's a YouTube video. Check it out for yourself below.)
Sufjan picked the circular hula hoop as the central image, writing in the program:
"As a symbolic construction, the hoop is an existential goldmine. Insulated against the world, the hooper resides within a circular plane, a tube of plastic, shielding himself against the world. Like the driver of an automobile, the hooper is contained within a physical habitat, a moving object, the hoop."Not only is it interesting as an analogy, it's pretty damn hilarious. One of my favorite things about Sufjan's work is his sense of humor: Like when he intentionally mispronounced his name as "Soof-john" when he first introduced himself (which caused audible confusion in the audience: But wait! I've been snootily correcting it to Soof-yan! How can I face all the plebs--er, my friends now!).
Sufjan started the second half of his set "Sufjan Plays the Hits"--with a little laugh at the idea of calling them "the hits"--with "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois" the first track off Illinois. After a mix of songs from Illinois and Greetings from Michigan, (including "Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)" and "Jacksonville" and new track "Barn Owl, Night Killer"), Sufjan played his two biggest emotionally heavy-hitting songs off Illinois: "John Wayne Gacy, Jr" and "Casimir Pulaski Day."
After finishing "John Wayne Gacy, Jr", Sufjan explained awkwardly that he cut out some of the lines ("He took off all their clothes for them/He put a cloth on their lips/Quiet hands quiet kiss") because he couldn't sustain the crisis needed to sing the song anymore and thought it should be retired. This announcement was met with some claps and some noises of disapproval (I guess you could say "light boos" though that sounds kinda funny). I really respect an artist that can emotionally live in their work as they perform it; and Gacy is such an intense song, I don't blame him for wanting to retire it from his performances. And hey, I got to see it; so what do I care if he never plays it again? Haha.
Sufjan took song banter to the next level by putting his MFA in creative writing to good use and writing a short story "Toilet Paper Dolls by Sufjan Stevens" to introduce "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" and through the magic of the internet, I don't have to hazily retype the gist, I can just post it here:
The highlight of the "hits" section for me was hearing the unreleased "Majesty Snowbird," which he dedicated to anyone named Marzuki Stevens (his brother was running in the New York Marathon that weekend). It's a gorgeous song that packed such a punch, the "Chicago" closer felt like an afterthought. I couldn't find a clip from The BQE performance, but this will give you a taste for it (he wore wings for this performance too!)
So do I stand by my previous gushy "BEST. CONCERT. EVER." text? You're damn right I do. And now that I've created this blog-pastiche of the highlights for you, it might just be your favorite concert that you never attended.