A rich and im­mer­sive show

Suf­jan Stevens sings of death in a dy­namic show at the Dorothy Chan­dler Pav­il­ion.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - RANDALL ROBERTS POP MU­SIC CRITIC Fol­low Randall Roberts on Twit­ter: @liledit

Multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist Suf­jan Stevens gives a dy­namic per­for­mance of gen­tle rock and baroque pop.

Through­out a mu­si­cally dy­namic, the­mat­i­cally dev­as­tat­ing night of gen­tle rock and baroque pop, the singer, com­poser and multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist Suf­jan Stevens filled the Dorothy Chan­dler Pav­il­ion with songs about death and dy­ing, nos­tal­gia, long-gone homes and scat­tered fam­ily.

“What is that song you sing for the dead?” he won­dered to open in “Death with Dig­nity,” about his late mother, whom he de­scribed as a “tired old mare with the wind in her hair.” The fu­neral song Stevens was seek­ing could have been any from “Car­rie & Low­ell,” his sub­limely mourn­ful new al­bum, named for his mother and step­fa­ther.

Over the first of a twonight run Wed­nes­day, Stevens, 39, and his ex­pert fourpiece back­ing band (mul­ti­in­stru­men­tal­ists Casey Fou­bert, Ben Lanz and Dawn Lan­des, and drum­mer James Mcalister) per­formed all 11 songs from the al­bum and dot­ted it with work from across his 15-year discog­ra­phy. That they did so in a venue of­ten used for op­er­atic drama not only added dra­matic heft, but also in­fused the night with a wor­ship­ful kind of clar­ity. It was a son­i­cally rich, im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence.

The artist has been play­ing th­ese songs in roughly this or­der across the coun­try since the be­gin­ning of April. He’s kept the core of the set the same, de­liv­er­ing a the­mat­i­cally linked song cy­cle of old and new work that moved not only as an over­view but also as a stand­alone piece.

Near­ing the end of the run, the band­mates now know ev­ery mea­sure of th­ese songs and pre­sented them with a deft­ness and pu­rity borne of fo­cused rep­e­ti­tion.

A Suf­jan-ian del­i­cacy con­nected it all, one char­ac­ter­ized by his whis­pery singing voice sug­ges­tive of El­liott Smith, a 1970s Paul Simon vibe, Stevens’ twee falsetto and an in­stru­men­tal spa­cious­ness, all as in­tri­cately con­nected as a spi­der’s web. As with a web in wait, lives will even­tu­ally be ex­tin­guished. If you’re lucky, Stevens’ band will per­form the march when it does.

Above the mu­si­cians, home movies were pro­jected onto nine thin, crys­tal­shaped screens. They doc­u­mented the artist as a tod­dler play­ing and his youn­gand-in-love par­ents carous- ing amid Ko­dachrome tones.

That joy didn’t last long. Through­out her life, Stevens’ mother was de­bil­i­tated with schizophre­nia and al­co­holism. She left her chil­dren and hus­band when her son was a 1-year-old. “Car­rie & Low­ell” re­flects on her life, sad demise and its ef­fect. “I should have wrote a let­ter, ex­plain­ing what I feel — that empty feel­ing,” sang her son in “Should Have Known Bet­ter.” He re­called mo­ments as a boy, jux­ta­pos­ing them with time spent at her deathbed.

At var­i­ous points be­tween songs he re­called en­coun­ters with The End, adding fa­tal­is­tic lev­ity to what on pa­per reads like a pretty grim night. He told of hit­ting an ice patch on a high­way as a kid while rid­ing in a car with a step­mother who be­lieved in rein­car­na­tion and so blithely sipped a soda as they spun. He re­mem­bered his can­cer-stricken al­bino rat, and the hor­ri­fy­ing way his fa­ther taught the son to put it out of its mis­ery. He told of los­ing a class­mate to sui­cide.

Given the cir­cum­stances, it’s a won­der Stevens made it onto the Pav­il­ion stage at all, let alone as­cended to such artis­tic heights. Through­out his im­pres­sive nine al­bums (in­clud­ing two Christ­mas al­bums), the artist, raised in Michi­gan, has built an un­usual reper­toire that spans orches­tral indie rock and ex­u­ber­ant dance pop. His most en­dur­ing early works, “Illi­nois” and “Michi­gan,” were part of a since­a­ban­doned ef­fort to honor each Amer­i­can state with its own con­cept al­bum.

His en­core in­cluded one of the most be­guil­ing and cu­ri­ous works on “Illi­nois.” Called “Con­cern­ing the UFO Sight­ing Near High­land, Illi­nois,” Stevens embodied the real-life ex­pe­ri­ence of a small-town po­lice­man en­coun­ter­ing a mys­te­ri­ous f ly­ing ob­ject, and the of­fi­cer’s re­sponse. Sit­ting at his up­right pi­ano, the artist, a Chris­tian un­afraid to re­fer to the Bi­ble to a mostly secular fan base, con­nected the sight­ing to a re­li­gious epiphany.

It was a rare mo­ment of hope amid a per­for­mance that dwelt on the in­evitable, on fate and on cir­cum­stance. “For my prayer has al­ways been love,” he sang dur­ing “Drawn to the Blood.” “What have I done to de­serve this?”

In “Eu­gene,” he re­called sum­mers in Ore­gon with his mother. “The best is be­hind me / Now I’m drunk and afraid / Wish­ing the world would go away.”

A drag? Per­haps, but glo­ri­ous doom­say­ing nonethe­less.

Lawrence K. Ho Los An­ge­les Times

SUF­JAN STEVENS and his band per­formed his al­bum “Car­rie & Low­ell” in its en­tirety, plus other songs from his 15-year discog­ra­phy, Wed­nes­day in the first of a two-night run at the Dorothy Chan­dler Pav­il­ion.

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