Oh, fer cute.
Greatly furthering his apparent effort to be seen as a novelty act and avoid making a proper follow-up to his seriously adored “Illinois” album of 2005 -- yep, it’s been that long -- Sufjan Stevens put on a holly, jolly, hopelessly silly Christmas show Wednesday night at Mill City Nights. The Detroit-reared indie-folk-pop star was at least upfront about the goof factor this time out. His tour is called the Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Singalong Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant On Ice, so it’s hard to fault the tinsel-brained tone of the nearly two-hour concert.
Still, few could’ve predicted just how slapstick and corny the show really could be. It was a like a Flaming Lips concert inspired by peppermint-stick sugar highs instead of hallucinogenics. Stevens’ costumed crew threw around inflatable toys, balloons and confetti. They employed a lot of Casio-quality synthesizer parts, kazoos, banjo and falsetto voices for musical accompaniment. Sufjan’s pipsqueaky voiced pal Rosie Thomas added childish comedy bits throughout. And the centerpiece of their act was a giant spinning wheel -- Pat Sajak would’ve loved how often the audience got to yell “Wheel! Of! Christmas!” -- which landed on a dozen or so classic holiday tunes. Pamphlets with song lyrics were even handed out to audience members before the show. So those are the words to “Auld Lang Syne”…
Once you discount the notion that Stevens might still have some masterful work left in him, there’s really not much point in bah-humbugging the fun that ensued. Much of the sold-out, Christmas-sweater-wearing young crowd did seem to be charmed by the show. Who doesn’t love singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells” and “Holly Jolly Christmas?” When the wheel landed on the latter tune, Stevens excitedly interjected, “You should know this one because it’s in ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’”
The sing-alongs were interlaced with Stevens’ own originals from his “Songs for Christmas” EPs, including the opener “Christmas Woman,” plus the punky “Mr. Frosty Man,” the elegant ballads “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever” and “The Child With the Star on His Heads” and the pre-encore finale “Christmas Unicorn,” which was stretched out into an extended jam. Oh joy. There were a few non-Christmas songs thrown in, too, including his own “Vito’s Ordination Song,” “Casimir Pulaski Day” and, during the encore, “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and, yes, “Chicago.”
Oh, there was one more, too. “This also isn’t a Christmas song, but we’re going to do it anyway in honor of his majesty, Prince,” Stevens said, before sliding into what had to be the most unfunky version of “Alphabet Street” ever played in the history of mankind. Still, like a lot else in the show, his charm helped sell it in the end: “I’ll probably be paying royalties on that for the rest of my life,” he quipped afterward of His Litigious Majesty.