Our last visit to the Hollywood Bowl featured the comedic reverie of parody legend Weird Al Yankovic. Tonight, was a decidedly less humorous affair. This evening’s show was a medley of three wildly divergent artists. Indie experimentalist extraordinaire Sufjan Stevens was joined for this mega show by garage rocker Kurt Vile and minimalist newcomer duo Ibeyi. There was little to unify the lineup in terms of theme save for its inclusion in the annual KCRW World Music Festival. Nevertheless, the combination made for a mostly enjoyable experience (a few bumps in the road aside). For Sufjan Stevens himself, this was the final show in what had been a relentless year and a half of shows in promotion of his most recent album, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell.
First up, with the standard, brief opening slot for the night was French-Cuban pop act Ibeyi. Comprised of twin sisters Lisa Kainde and Naomi Diaz, the duo is a decidedly minimalist affair, singing in both English and Yoruba (a dialect originally from West Africa transported to Cuba). The sisters share in vocal duties while Lisa Kainde Diaz primarily plays piano and Naomi does simplistic and sparse percussion. Many of the set’s songs the sisters indicate are a loving tribute to those that have passed on. “Think of You,” for example, was dedicated to their late father Anga Diaz, while “Oduduwa” was dedicated to first Yoruban king of the same name (whom they point out was the first to abolish the killing of twins). The duo tries hard to incite the crowd to participate and singalong—particularly on set closer “River”—an admirable attempt given that for the early slot at shows at the Bowl the crowd can be notoriously difficult to enrapture.
Kurt Vile and his band The Violators followed, and where Ibeyi was playful world-influenced pop, Vile was a driving rumination in ‘60s troubadour folk and garage rock. Vile is running high on the strength of last year’s b’lieve I’m goin’ down, and this set was an unlikely delight. It’s hard to pin down just what Vile is aiming for, but the varying flavors of his persona ring out in memorable songs throughout the set. Starting with a pair of tracks from his most recent album “Dust Bunnies” and “I’m an Outlaw” the variety of techniques is instantly apparent. The tempo never rises to a gallop and never quite slows to a crawl. Guitar solos pop in occasionally, a blast of frenetic morphing pentatonic scales. His band The Violators provide a wall-of-sound swell that serves as a nesting bed for his calm and contemplative voice. “Goldtone,” “Wakin on a Pretty Day” and “KV Krimes” from Wakin on a Pretty Daze provide for a chance to switch between electric guitar, acoustic guitar and banjo. Last year’s stellar cut “Pretty Pimpin’” flowers from its out-of-body acoustic rumination into one with explosive lead guitar breakouts. The final two songs allow for something even more special as Vile is joined by former The War on Drugs bandmate Adam Granduciel on lead guitar for the awesome “Puppet for the Man” and the raucous “Freak Train.”
Vile’s set might have been a hard act to follow, but Sufjan Stevens came armed with a bit of a visual extravaganza. Opening with early career track “Seven Swans,” the song’s delicate framework exploded into distorted segues. Stevens and his two backup singers/dancers triumphantly expanded their arms to the sky on the song’s finale, Stevens himself raising a pair of angel wings on his back high to the sky. Presumably because of an audio/technical issue he proceeded to smash the banjo he was playing to smithereens. The sonic nuance of that number was hard to top, and the following songs “Too Much” and “All of Me Wants All of You” while solid didn’t measure up to the opener’s commanding presence.
Stevens quipped, “Welcome to the holy mothership of Los Angeles: The Hollywood Bowl.” Likely given the stringent noise curfew rules and a packed set list he continued, “Movement is life. Life is love. We’re going to keep on moving.” Joined on stage by no fewer than eight band members, Stevens and his band all were decked out in late ‘80s style neon active wear. For “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” and “Vesuvius” he bounds back and forth on stage, periodically syncing up with his backing dancers Dawn Landes and Cat Martino. Several songs take on a bleak and ominous tone: “Fourth of July,” “Should Have Known Better” and “I Want to Be Well.” “Fourth of July” for example features the lyric, “Well you do enough talk / My little hawk, why do you cry? / Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook burn? / Or the Fourth of July? / We’re all gonna die.” Stevens comments on this before “I Want to Be Well” referring to himself as a “Debbie Downer” before adding the songs are aimed to tell the listener, “Know you’re alive and well.” It’s no wonder given the premise of his most recent album Carrie & Lowell all being crafted in the wake of the demise of his mother Carrie.
Everything takes an odd turn from there, with time on the clock before noise curfew in short supply, he plays a monster number from The Age of Adz entitled “Impossible Soul,” a twenty-five minute song with numerous seemingly unrelated movements. Diehard fans were likely jazzed to hear the song in its entirety, but the uninitiated would’ve been unsure three times if the song had completed or not. Stevens took this opportunity for several costume changes, one of which featured a pedestal and a silver glitz outfit complete with three giant silver balloons. Another costume change featured an overcoat made entirely of colorful balloons. The finale came with manic energy, but it’s hard not to wonder if the time might not have been better spent playing four other songs? The set proper ended much stronger after that with early career favorite “Chicago” shortly and sweetly tying everything together.
The amount of time remaining in short supply, there was only enough for an abbreviated encore of “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” (Stevens played this solo on piano) and “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti.” The final song featured a pleasant one-off surprise, as resident Los Angeles singer Moses Sumney was revealed to have been on stage with the band the whole night. With Sumney on lead vocals the whole ensemble faithfully covered Prince’s “Kiss” which Stevens indicated was his favorite artist of all time.
As one of the few artists from the 2000s indie mega hype generation to achieve legitimate long-term success, this show had to be one of the biggest (if not the very biggest) of Sufjan Stevens’ career. There’s no question he deserved to be in this high-profile a spot, but the greater question is whether he has what it takes to hold down the largest slot that becomes the true business testament of an artist’s arrival as a superstar, consistently playing arenas. The answer is: maybe. There are moments here that are truly transcendent but other moments appear unfocused and manic. Simply put, the final product here felt a little rushed and unprepared for the quality and prestige that a show here requires. That doesn’t mean all hope is lost, and far be it from one journalist to judge the complexity of such a feat following eighteen months of relentless touring, but there needs to be a bit more focused cohesion to bring Stevens to the top of the industry along side indie champions such as Arcade Fire and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
All of Me Wants All of You
Come On! Feel the Illinoise!
Fourth of July
Should Have Known Better
I Want to Be Well
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland Illinois
For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
Kiss (with Moses Sumney)
File photo by Sharon Alagna