With his wings outstretched above his head, indie rock artist Sufjan Stevens began a nearly two-hour masterclass of psychedelic energy. No matter if the song was from Seven Swans (2004), Illinois (2005), or Carrie & Lowell (2015), Stevens managed to Age of Adz-idize the whole act, the most electronic side of his musical spectrum, one renowned for his folk roots.
A three-song encore brought the show back down to earth from the other-worldly heights Stevens achieved – heights higher than his tin foil ladder and headdress, one of many outfits for the show, could reach at Wolf Trap.
The shift in atmosphere between Stevens’ Baltimore showing nine months prior and Friday night’s concert could not have been more stark. What was a somber show of remembrance for his mother’s passing, where he played the entire Carrie & Lowell album, Baltimore impressed in an entirely different way, one focused on the end of life.
From the very first song at Wolf Trap, “Seven Swans”, Stevens set the tone immediately. Altering the title track from his 2004 album from its god-fearing, folk-driven basics, to a world of electronic beats, Stevens completely changed the sound, but not the message of his lyrics.
Despite the festive feeling Friday night, Stevens still appeared to choke up during his rendition of “Fourth of July.” The recent passing of his mother still fresh, even with the colorful music behind it to mask the sorrow in a different light.
It was hard not to be distracted by the entire scene on stage, as Stevens advised against in his 25-minute freeform electronic groove session of “Impossible Soul”, from Age of Adz (2010), with all of the extra production. From strobe lights to a “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”-inspired background video, it was one large attention overdose.
Add in five car dealership dancing blowup men, and it was all you could do to retain focus on Stevens as he changed outfits from his MC Hammer-style parachute pants, to full tin foil, on to a colorful balloon and pool noodle mix.
But that is the way Stevens meant it to be. Stage lights were not centered on him. It was meant to be enjoyed as a spectacle, with him as one small part of the onstage entertainment.
For fans of his older, more natural sounding folk music, Stevens’ three-song encore was worth the wait. After jumbling lyrics on “Casimir Pulaski Day” from Illinois, Stevens apologized: “Sorry, so many songs about death.”
But Stevens kept a joyous view on the night despite songs reflecting on mortality. It was a point of view which celebrates that life happened, while accepting the fact that “we’re all gonna die.”