Thursday night at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, James McAlister, and Nico Muhly harnessed celestial energy to create the cosmic pastoral of their 2017 space jam album, Planetarium. The show, one of only a handful scheduled to perform the album material, proved to be a very special evening “under and above” the stars. The quartet, accompanied by a gang of strings and horns, executed the LP from start to finish with dramatic and artful bombast.
LA area native (and Asthmatic Kitty label mate with Sufjan), Angelo De Augustine played a delicate set to start the proceedings. His breathy and androgynous falsetto hit Sade/Rhye levels, despite a bit of shakiness. De Augustine later attributed such wobbles to being nervous, an understandable reaction given how fresh to the scene he is. But his songs have character, and quieter venues will be more forgiving down the road.
When considering the collective sonic output at face value, the Planetarium set still felt like a Sufjan project. Not only did Stevens handle lead vocal duties, and inter-song narration, but the performances rang out across the sky like a hybrid of the electro spaz of Age of Adz, and the tenderness of Carrie & Lowell (with a healthy dash of Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks).
But about that narration. It could have come across as maudlin if it wasn’t so earnest. Sufjan spoke of the universe being “abundant and eternal,” and reminded us, “You are beautifully and wonderfully made.” Never one to shy away from Christian influence, Sufjan’s reflections intertwined his own heaven and the infinite space shared by all. Before returning to the music, Stevens suggested that we “proceed with life and vitality. Let’s explore space together!”
Our deep space exploration discovered a restrained Sufjan howl, a string-led interlude and cacophonous digital swells on opener “Neptune.” “Jupiter” progressed from electronic burbles to the memorable revelation that “Jupiter is the loneliest planet,” to ultimately climax with a barrage of terrestrial Howitzer blasts.
Many tracks contained thick bass and digital ribbons that dispersed as quickly as they appeared, all within the parameters of controlled chaos. Appropriately, “Venus” was a sexier slow jam, accompanied by a video presentation of hundreds of decoupaged images.
“Uranus” tapped directly in to that cosmic pastoral, “Mars” into weird-ass space funk crossed with the tension of malfunctioning spaceship noises. “Moon” felt isolated yet dreamy; as if the Planetarium crew got marooned in the first 26 seconds of “Kid A” and never escaped.
The brief interludes that ushered us between some of the meatier compositions (“Earth” was a robust 15 minutes) helped to create a near seamless journey all the way to the gentle set closing “Mercury.”
Following the completion of the album material, Sufjan Stevens returned to the stage for a jaw dropping, distorted take on the timeless “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and a dedication to Judy Garland who was re-interred in Hollywood Forever earlier this year.
The final verse was backed by a projection of Dorothy, eyes closed and wishing her way out of Oz, that ended in a colorful starburst. Following the interstellar main set, it was a spot on encore selection that tapped in to the audience’s collective consciousness, evoking the mystery and universal nature of the human experience.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow