Category Archives: Sufjan Stevens

Waiting for Sufjan: Clogs, Shara Worden, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus at the Ecstatic Music Festival

(It’s do-laundry and catch-up-on-posting-about-concerts day.  So let’s see how caught up I can get!)

On Saturday March 12, my daughter and I went to hear Clogs, Shara Worden, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus perform at Merkin Concert Hall as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival.  (Great photos here.) There is so much going on in New York, and I’ve gone to far fewer Ecstatic concerts than I’d hoped (and now wished).  So often there are two, or three, or even four events happening at the same time, each of which I’d like to be at.  And occasionally, I’m rehearsing, or performing, or just exhausted and/or musicked out.

Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Shara Worden, and some of Clogs on stage at Merkin. By David Andrako at brooklynvegan.com

Anyway, Clogs is another of those wedded-genre groups (a friend read another post and commented on Facebook that he loved my phrase “wedded genres” but it turned out I had said about everything but that phrase, which occurred to him, so thanks John B!) and the performance sounded so fascinating that I chose it over that evening’s Les Arts Florissants Tully Scope event. Which I really wanted to see.

I got my daughter to join me.  She was reluctant at first;  I’ve taken her to some weird stuff, and this was a long subway ride from the East Village.  But when I mentioned I’d gotten an email from a publicist mentioning in part that Sufjan Stevens, whose name was vaguely familiar to me, was going to be performing, too, she was sold. (He’d also been just been added to the listing on the website.) “Sufjan Stevens!  He’s great!  Pete [her brother] has all his albums and I have a lot of his stuff on my iTunes.  I can’t wait to tell Pete we’re going to hear Sufan!”

I guess the Metro ride seems shorter when Sufan Stevens is on the other end. Nothing like celebrity to get someone to a concert.  Which is great if you can afford a celebrity, or are friends with one who will play for free.  Those TV celebrities selling their own hair treatments and whatever?  Think they really went out and decided to devote their lives to coming up with the world’s best face cream?  No way.  Almost always, some great marketer like Dan Kennedy (and it usually was Dan Kennedy, by the way, especially if the infomercial is successful) went and hired them for a face-cream client.

If you don’t have/can’t afford a celebrity, our culture’s fame addiction is a real pain in the ass.  You can do absolutely great stuff and it is next to impossible to get people to come to your concert, or buy your CD, or your face cream, or whatever. Clogs?  They had Sufjan, and, bless them, it meant I got an evening with my daughter.

We arrived at Merkin about 15 or 20 minutes before the concert was scheduled to begin, and there was a huge line.  Was it for Sufjan?  Was it because there were a zillion kids in the chorus and therefore a zillion-squared relatives attending? Are Clogs that big a draw?  I don’t know.

There was just one person working the box office (shortly joined by another).  And some confusion in the line.  Was this the line for ticket holders?  Or to get tickets?  Turned out to be the latter, and as the news spread, the line thinned out a little.  Wow!  I thought.  This is kind of like one of the hot events at LPR, like when we stood in the rain waiting to hear Zoe Keating.

It took a while to get the tickets sold and everyone in, and the concert started a bit late.  Clogs is an unusual quartet: Bryce Dessner on guitar(s), Rachael Ellliott (bassoon), Thomas Kozumplik (percussion), and Padma Newsome (voice, mandola, and viola; violists can be so adventuresome!).  All terrific, inventive musicians.  As the evening progressed, a Penn-and-Teller dynamic revealed itself.  Newsome and Dessner talk to the audience and teasingly and playfully with and about each other; Elliott and Kozumplik stay silent.  Great rapport with the audience, in a folk-concert sort of way. The choir, not surprisingly, didn’t talk to the audience, either.

I really liked Clogs (and everyone else, just hold on).  A four-person band with bassoon and guitar–what more do you want, if you’re a let’s-do-things-differently guy like me?  Here’s part of their self-description:

Clogs are four musicians from the U.S. and Australia whose work traverses time and place and through which seemingly disparate influences are seamlessly drawn in. They compose and improvise using sounds and textures from across the musical spectrum—the immediacy of folk and rock music, twisted Americana, the complexity of modern composition.

And that’s why I had to hear them–and more of this Ecstatic Music series.  Immediacy and complexity, “sounds and textures from across the musical spectrum”–that puts it so well.  It’s what draws so many to this developing amalgamated-genre musicking (ooh, there’s a new phrase) in which the pieces and performances appeal to many but don’t fit in any particular category.

There were several additional instrumentalists (two violins, a cello, and percussion), and Shara Worden singing and playing guitar, and the wonderful Brooklyn Youth Chorus, mostly adolescent girls with a small handful of guys mixed in.  So when the show started with beautiful songs by Padma Newsome, not having having yet read the list of who was who (no individual names were listed on the page with program, they were buried several pages back), I was wondering who was who and which one is Sufjan Stevens?

I didn’t care that much (I hope), but that’s who my daughter had come for.  And he is a celebrity, after all, in her world.  Where’s the celebrity?  I want her to be happy.  I’m the guy who took her to see . . . what’s his name again?

Turned out, once Padma Newsome started talking to us after the opening two songs, with Bryce chiming in a bit, that it was, oh well, just them.  Clogs and the choir and Shara.  No Sufjan.

They’d started with “Cocodrillo” and “On the Edge,” two songs by Padma from a new album by Worden and Clogs, with a wonderful choir part added (if my memory is correct;  I didn’t know it would take me over a week to get around to writing about this, or I would have taken better notes).  “2:3:5,” and instrumental piece full of complexity and layered rhythms, “all in my guitar part,” as Dessner joked, followed, and then “Voisins.”  There was quite a bit of discussion about “voisins” meaning “neighbors” in French, and possible programmatic aspects, but, really, they said, it just happened that they were in the town of Voisins when they wrote it.  Charming banter, and a nice piece, which, if I’m not mistaken, started out in 7 and morphed around the metric spectrum a bit, all while retaining the folkish feel that was ever present in the evening.

So, I was wondering, having scanned through the program and finding the list of personnel, are they are going to have this Sufjan guy do a little solo set as a kind of guest star? It was obvious that the program was printed before he was added.  The suspense was building.  Wait till he comes on and we tell Pete about this! (Hmm.  Maybe I’m more into this celebrity thing than I thought. Oh, hell.  I love celebrities.  I WANT TO SEE FAMOUS PEOPLE!  Even if I didn’t know they were famous until just a bit ago.)

Anyway, no Sufjan yet. Be patient.  The concert’s fantastic without him.

The two big works on the program were co-commissioned by the festival: Bryce Dessner’s Tour Eiffel (text by Vincente Huidobro) and Padma Newsome’s three-movement Unattended Shadow (texts by himself and Susannah Keebler).  The Manhattan New Music Project also supported both, and St. Ann’s Warehouse the Dessner piece.

I enjoyed both.  Were I an actual music critic (not just playing one on this blog), I’d have taken better notes or written about the music right away.  What I remember is that the Brooklyn Youth Choir, directed (on stage) by  . . . oops, her name didn’t get in the program, was terrific.  (Actually, it was Dianne Berkun, who founded the group and is listed on the BYC website).

I loved the poems, especially the three in Unattended Shadows. The first, by Keebler, was inspired by a shirtless, shoeless bicycle rider in Newsome’s home town, who would avoid shadows while riding around.  The third, Newsome’s own “Dog Pooh Corner in Seattle,” was prompted by a church, not (just) feces.  In part:

Dog pooh corner in Seattle,
With infinity comes a song.
Two jesters, a mandarin cat, sat looking at an empty space.
Along comes a man and a dog,
The man pees while the dog watches on,
At the Tuesday lunch line at the door,
At the Tuesday lunch line for the poor.

My temporary room in NY overlooks a church which feeds many poor people, among its other services, and there’s a low-income “hotel” next to it.  In this Upper West Side neighborhood with its multimillion dollar apartments (including in the building where I’m staying, although not the rent-stabilized run-down unit where I’m a guest), there are panhandlers on the street. “Sir, sir, can you help me out?” I’m asked several times most days. (“I’ll be honest with you sir,” a very disheveled guy shared with me one night. “I’m an alcoholic.  And I really need a drink.  That’s what I need the money for.  It’s my birthday and I need a drink.” So I gave him five bucks and another guy, seeing what happened, started to tell me it’s his birthday, too.) I’m sure more than one has peed while a dog watched.  And there’s not infrequently poop on the corner. So it resonated with me.  My daughter, on the other hand, found it the one thing she really didn’t like.

After the big pieces, a couple more to go.  Well, now I bet they’ll bring Sufjan Stevens out!  What’s he going to do? A little solo set?

The penultimate piece, “5/4.”  No Sufjan.  No Sufjan? Is he not here?  We’ve already told Pete on Facebook about this!  What are we going to brag about?

That’s all I remember.  No Sufjan.  It probably was in 5/4. Pretty sure it was.  It may have been instrumental or had vocals.  I just don’t recall.  All I remember, no fucking Sufjan.

Finally, in the very last piece, “We Were Here,” (or in the encore, but I think that was just Clogs) Sufjan Stevens (yay!) came out on the stage.

Cool-looking kid. (Well, he’s in his mid-thirties, but he still looks like a kid to me.) All in black, I think.  Plugged in his guitar banjo. OK! It’s Sufan time!

And he sang along with everyone else.  No solo. Shara Worden sang, too. Sufjan probably has a nice voice.  He must, he’s got a big career.  We just didn’t hear it, at least by itself, that night.  (Well, we heard a little.  It’s sensitive and sexy.  I’ll probably end up downloading an album.)

My daughter and I had a huge laugh over the whole thing. (“I think they really overused that Sufjan kid,” I teased her.) She really enjoyed the concert, and I’m so glad she got to hear the great concert she heard. Even if she was kind of tricked into coming.

And she did get to see Sufjan.

Sufjan at Merkin, from brooklynvegan.com


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Filed under Clogs, Ecstatic Music Festival, Ensembles, Festivals, Shara Worden, Singers, Sufjan Stevens