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Concert Review

Sufjan Stevens Invites Somerville to Feel the ‘Illinoise’

By Mirat Shah

Sufjan Stevens

Somerville Theater

Thursday, Sept. 8, 8 p.m.

As an aspiring musician, Sufjan Stevens created recordings dedicated to the nine planets, 12 apostles, four humors, and 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. As his fame grew, so did his ambition. Two years ago, he began a project to compose an album for each of the 50 states, starting with his home state, Michigan. On Thursday Sept. 8, he performed at the Somerville Theater as part of his second installment, “Come on feel the Illinoise,” a tribute to the state of Illinois.

Sufjan Stevens showed that not only is he a talented musician, he is also a master showman. For his first number, “The 50 States,” a humorous introduction to the project, he sported a star-spangled jumpsuit. He then ripped it off to match the Fighting Illini orange and navy cheerleading uniforms worn by his bandmates (dubbed the “Illinoisemakers”). Stevens and his band prefaced many of their songs with clever, funny, and sometimes nonsensical cheers they had written and choreographed. They had both the chutzpah and self-deprecatory sense of humor to pull them off, and each routine drew appreciative chuckles.

The versatility displayed by Stevens and the Illinoisemakers would make Deion Sanders proud. They began with their song “Come on feel the Illinoise,” which features bouncy horn and piano parts and a snappy, upbeat chorus; with Stevens belting the melody, it sounded like a Broadway musical number. From then on, the band was simultaneously a rock band, folk group, chorus ensemble, and small orchestra, often within the same song, as in “Metropolis.” This variety held the audience’s attention, with each new twist in style eagerly anticipated throughout the night.

The Illinoisemakers were not only versatile in the genres they could play, but also in their musicianship. Several songs featured the trombonist playing the banjo, the pianist playing the guitar, and so on, with every member of the ensemble capable of harmonizing with a different melodic voice. This game of musical chairs was exciting in “Chicago,” which had many interesting instrumental parts. The recorded version, which uses an orchestral ensemble and chorus, is beautiful, but witnessing the band recreate this rich sound live is far more impressive.

Several songs stood out in this themed concert. “Casimir Pulaski Day” (an Illinois state holiday) reminded the crowd that Stevens is a folk songwriter at heart. For the first time, Stevens made the theme “Illinois” personal, singing about a girlfriend with cancer. His detail was absolutely exquisite in lines like “In the morning through the window shade/ When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade/ I could see what you were reading.” The audience hushed to capture each line of the song, which Stevens sang in a resonant, yet wistfully poignant voice.

The second standout song was “Happy Birthday,” from an earlier album, which Stevens sang with heartfelt sincerity to commemorate his bandmate’s birthday, while the other Illinoisemakers brought out a cake with lighted candles.

From the costumes, to the chants, to the repartee with the crowd, to the instrumental solos, to the stellar songs, Sufjan Stevens and the Illinoisemakers reminded the audience what is so great about seeing a favorite band live. For many rock bands, it doesn’t matter if you see them live or listen to their albums; they show up, sing their hit songs, emotionlessly play their guitar solos, and then leave, without engaging the audience. With Stevens, the experience could never be duplicated at home on a CD player.