Sufi Claus came to town

by Ryan Snyder

Whatever possible feelings one can have about Christmastime in general, indie-folk hero Sufjan Stevens likely managed to force an honest reexamination of them Sunday night at the Haw River Ballroom. For many among the few hundred decked out in full yuletide regalia at the way, way sold-out North Carolina stop of Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice, it was a time to celebrate the arrival of and then immediate burn-out on the holiday season. Stevens and his band’s wardrobe pastiche of Santa’s helper, superhero, tree ornamentation and cryptid was matched by ugly sweaters, elf ears, fake white beards, antlers, drunken caroling until hoarse, garish lighting, and seasonal vagary in spades — it was like two months crammed into two hours. For the faction who probably couldn’t have given two spits about a Charlie Brown special or eggnog and just wanted to hear “Star of Wonder” and talk about the latest episode of “New Girl” until that time, “bah, humbugs” had become “ba-rum pah pa pahs” by the second or third spin of Stevens’ towering Wheel of Christmas.

Before he ever started writing and adapting Christmas songs just a few years ago, Stevens himself could have been counted among that latter group. It started as a mode of catharsis for coping with his holiday blahs, but eventually became a sort of joyfully grim mania with a side of whimsy. The name of the tour itself and its countless variations — among the best was the Surfjam Stephanopoulos Christmas Pageant of the Apocalypse — is redolent of the conflicted medium he’s reached, not to mention his compulsive “Merry Christmas” wishes after almost every song. Then there were somber observations like “No one can save you from Christmases past/ You’ll have to love it or leave it at last” from his original “Lumberjack Christmas” almost immediately followed by a palliative spin of the “Wheel! Of! Christmas!” Audience exclamations of “No whammy, no whammy!” with every spin were shouted in vain; there simply were no bad outcomes on a wheel with quirky possibilities for “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Slay (sic) Ride” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” ahead. Stevens encouraged fans that spun on taking the Michael Larson route to gameshowing by just picking their own stops, but for every eventuality, a different interpretation awaited. Though not officially on the wheel, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” opened the caroling with the warm glow of vocoder, a strangely poignant treatment given that most of the holiday tunes were delivered on the slight pretense of being goofs.

The show’s best moments were not the mechanized crooning or the hearty, off-key sing-alongs (though they were pretty fun), but rather when the focus was on Stevens’ gorgeously unadorned voice was backed only by a twinkle of banjo or the gentle wheeze of recorder. It was pin-drop quiet for his pairing of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with his flickering original “Christmas In the Room,” though restlessness began to manifest as he and his band assumed carol formation for Bach’s “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” “No one can harmonize like my homeboy JS,” he said as he began to break the doldrums with a story of his meager upbringing and combating his hometown’s lake-effect snow with walls insulated by bat droppings. “Then I won the lottery and got the hell up out of there. Bought myself this Wheel of Christmas.”

The disaster portion of unexpectedly revealed itself in for form of errant fire alarms that probably brought the show to a premature conclusion, but not before the Scrooges were granted their wish. “Chicago”, the centerpiece to his brilliant album Chicago, brought the festivities to an end. Its massive chorale parts, strings, horns and hammered dulcimer gave it a cozy home among the evening’s seasonal program, equal parts delirious and excessively, exhaustingly jolly.

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