When Sufjan Stevens first announced a tour in support of his latest collection of Christmas covers and seasonally-themed originals, many fans took it in stride. How excited can you get over a boxset of Christmas music, even if it by someone as universally loved as Sufjan Stevens? Very excited, as it turns out. The tour dates sold out quickly and fans were eager to see what kind of extravagant pageant Stevens was going to unleash onstage. It didn’t hurt people’s expectations that this particular tour was called the “Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice”. In fact, most of the title was cut off of my ticket because there was just no room to squeeze it in. And like some 1700 other people on a cold November evening, I stood in line outside of Track 29 in Chattanooga, TN waiting for the doors to open. And by god was it cold.
As we waited, someone made their way through the dense line handing out pamphlets to each couple/individual. This would turn out to be a small songbook of Christmas carols/songs which would play a significant role in our musical experience later in the evening. Stevens’ now well-known Christmas Unicorn was front and center on the cover like some mutated My Little Pony. And apart from the wait and the frigid temperatures, as odd as it may seem, this small gesture made me smile. Yes, I know this was being done at all these tour stops but there was effort and a real sense of camaraderie that was felt by more than just me, I know, when people started to flip through the little booklet. It was like some unexpected present from a long lost relative—it felt welcome but you’re left not knowing how to repay the favor. We found out how soon enough though.
As we finally made our way inside, there was a tangible sense of exhilaration from everyone in line. A sense of not knowing what was in store for us. As we approached the stage, we got our first glimpse. There were stockings hung from amps, mic stands, and speakers. The Wheel of Christmas, which I had heard about, was about 12 feet tall and looked like the Wheel of Fortune wheel turned vertical, with probably 20 different Christmas songs painted on segments around its outer border. The obligatory Christmas trees, though miniaturized, dotted the stage in various places, and three disco balls were hung above the stage with care. As I looked around, I noticed that many in the audience were similarly decked out. I’m not sure that I’ve seen so many apparently homemade Christmas/Dinosaur sweaters, red and green toboggans, and various other pieces of festive apparel in one place before. It also seemed that the audience was a bit trigger happy because there were multiple rounds of classic carols sung by the audience before the stage was even occupied. It all felt very communal and everyone seemed to be in good spirits.
Before Sufjan and Co. took the stage however, we were greeted by a lady who walked onstage and sat down on a stool that sat at the edge of the stage. She was decked out in what seemed to be a mix of surgical scrubs and a nuns habit and wore thick rimmed glasses and a neck brace. And she was munching on a bag of potato chips. This had to be Sally Shaputo, the alias of Sufjan stage-mate Rosie Thomas. She began to regale us with seemingly pointless asides, stories from her childhood, and completely random facts, still chomping loudly into the mic. I think that this really threw off many people who had no clue what was going on. And admittedly it took me some time to adjust to it. But after the initial sense of dumbfounded WTF curiosity fell away, you got the feeling that beyond the purposefully awkward situation that was being presented, there was a sort of silly lightheartedness and a sense that Shaputo(Thomas) was there to maybe break up the hype a little and try to help us to just enjoy the rest of the show without any unrealistic expectations. In the end, as she stood up, everyone had let their guard down a bit and cheered as she walked offstage.
And so we come to the Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice. Well, almost. There will always be interruptions and equipment to be wrangled and a lone microphone seemed to be the hold up as roadies and in-house techs tried to quickly iron out the issues. Just as people were starting to murmur and get a bit frustrated—myself included—it seemed to get fixed, the lights dimmed, and the band took the stage.
Everyone was decked in costumes of some sort, whether it was Thomas in a full-body snowman suit or the lead guitarist in a half Superman/half chicken outfit, and of course, “Christmas Unicorn” brought out the unicorn horns onstage (and in the audience). After Stevens thanked the audience and introduced us to the formalities of the evening (the functionality of The Wheel of Christmas, our songbooks), he opened the show with “Christmas Woman” and dove through a good deal of the 10 volumes from his Songs for Christmas series for the bulk of the show. I’ve got to say that the individual songs felt less important here than the overall feeling of being part of this group of strangers bound together for just one evening.
Though to be fair, there were highlights which completely left me speechless. Stevens traded off between playing songs from Silver & Gold and his previous Christmas collection and having his band (and a few lucky people from the audience) take turns spinning the Wheel of Christmas to see which songs we would sing together. His absolutely gorgeous rendition of “Sister Winter” was awe-inspiring and kept the audience spellbound for its duration. Any song which felt majestic on record was absolutely monolithic live, with beautiful arrangements backed by the incredible presence of his band. There were even a few times when he and the band dropped the instruments altogether and sight-sang a few hymns a cappella for us. It felt solemn but not stuffy—a touching moment among the outlandish Technicolor props and costumes.
The stuttering stop-start beat of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” mixed with his electro-tuned vocals recalled the electronic orchestrations from The Age of Adz and Enjoy Your Rabbit albums, but even given its overtly synthetic nature, it didn’t feel out of place and brought an added layer of experimentation to a very Sufjan-feeling show. But it was only a matter of time before he got to “The Christmas Unicorn,” the festive behemoth from Silver & Gold. The song, which tiptoes over the 13 minute mark, felt affective without coming across as fraudulently self-aware. This churning, almost prog-ish mixture of the artificial and authentic felt like an appropriate closer to the official set. And even when stretched out past its album length, it never felt unwelcome or over-long. Obviously, by this point, the unicorn horns were in prominence both onstage and in the audience and Sufjan would have been well within his rights to add a few more minutes to the song and no one would have minded on bit.
I had read some of the setlists from his recent shows and was anxious to hear some of his non-Christmas related songs from his proper records that he seemed to bring out in the encores. We were treated to three songs from his Illinoise album and they were stunners. “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” “Chicago,” and “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” felt as large and expansive as they did on the album and were welcomed with cheers and a quickly dawning recognition from everyone in the audience. The night felt like more than just a simple Christmas concert. It was comforting and oddly reverent, despite its brightly colored opulence. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
It’s a strange sensation to feel “moved” at a concert but Sufjan managed to pass on some measure of joy and shared holiday spirit to all of us in attendance. And as the evening drew to a close, I couldn’t tell if Stevens was tearing up or if it was my own feelings being projected back onto him. In the end, I don’t think it really mattered because after the last notes had faded away and the stage had gone still, I believed in the Christmas Unicorn too.
01. Christmas Woman
02. How Shall I Fitly Greet Thee?
03. Put the Lights On the Tree
04. Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You From Christmases Past
05. Do You Hear What I Hear?
06. That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!
07. Sleigh Ride (though it was labeled as “Slay Ride” on the Wheel of Christmas)
08. We Need A Little Christmas (Wheel of Christmas)
09. O Holy Night (Wheel of Christmas)
10. Santa Claus is Coming to Town (Wheel of Christmas)
11. Christmas In the Room
12. Ah Holy Jesus
13. Happy Karma Christmas
14. Mr. Frosty Man
15. Sister Winter
16. The Child With the Star on His Head
17. Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One
18. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Wheel of Christmas)
19. I’ll Be Home for Christmas (Wheel of Christmas)
20. Joy To the World (Wheel of Christmas)
21. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
22. Justice Delivers Its Death
23. Christmas Unicorn
24. Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
26. Come On! Feel the Illinoise