Sufjan Stevens came bounding onto the 9:30 club stage in star-spangled coveralls and a Chicago Cubs cap and put his inflatable Superman doll down so that he might pick up his banjo. There was a divine comfort in this, if you were looking for some.
Not that anybody noticed what he was doing, what with his backing band decked out in matching college-cheer-squad outfits and doing straight-leg kickouts and spirit-finger waves all over the stage Tuesday night.
And that's to say nothing of the actual cheers that followed -- Stevens's vaguely absurd performance artist way of ramping up to various songs from "Illinois," his new chamber-folk concept album of songs entirely about the Land of Lincoln. (One of the band's cheers, for instance, went like this: "Rea-dy? O-KAY! Goooooo Decatur! / It's either now / Or Later! / . . . The great eman- / cipator! / Abraham, he's the man," etc. This is how they introduced the song "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!" -- and yes, that's the actual title, exclamation point included.)
But don't be fooled by Stevens's idiosyncrasies, of which there are plenty. Beneath all the quirkiness, there's a literary singer whose songs are deeply spiritual, though not always in a blind-faith kind of way.
Stevens is the artist who might have been birthed by Flannery O'Connor and Nick Drake, had they ever hooked up.
Actually, to play that fantasy out, O'Connor and Drake probably would've had twins, and the brother of Sufjan (SOOF-yawn) would've gotten the much easier to pronounce name of Samuel Beam. Beam makes music under the moniker Iron and Wine. Together, Stevens and Iron and Wine are the favored artists among the bearded elite, aka Critics and Indie Hipsters Who Love the Soft, Sensitive Folk-Rock Stuff and Songs That Ask Interesting Questions About Faith.
(And if O'Connor-Drake had triplets? Number Three would've been another folkie named Devendra Banhart. Maybe. But he'd first have to find more religion and become a bit less bizarre to be accepted by the family.)
Anyway. A quiet, almost fragile sort of singer with a hushed, vaguely quivering tenor, Stevens isn't afraid of religious rumination. Not in the least.
"Casimir Pulaski Day," for instance, is a devastating ballad about a dying friend whose cancer can't be cured with prayer alone. In fact, it can't be cured at all, and the friend dies, and Stevens is left wondering about the unanswered prayers.
"Oh the glory when he took our place / But he took my shoulders and he shook my face / And he takes and he takes and he takes," Stevens sang, and the overstuffed room was so quiet that you could've heard the trickling of a baptismal font.
It's no small feat to get the 9:30 crowd to shaddup, and so Stevens -- apparently not wanting to prick the suddenly somber bubble in the room -- raced right into another dark, delicate acoustic number, "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." The song is about the clown-suit-wearing pedophilic killer from Illinois. But it's also a morality tale and a case study in sin, and it ends thus: "In my best behavior, I am just like him / Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid." (Worth noting: As he performed the song, Stevens was wearing a Fighting Illini outfit that matched his bandmates', and blow-up Superman was still onstage, and the whole thing was very contextually strange and weird.)
For all his spiritual questioning, Stevens seems like something of an evangelist in his recordings -- particularly last year's "Seven Swans." And his concerts can feel like Bible study, albeit with more melody and an atypical wardrobe.
"Abraham," performed Tuesday, was basically a Genesis riff in which Stevens warbled, "Abraham, put off on your son / Take instead the ram / Until Jesus comes." And so on.
But Stevens also performed secular songs with lighter lyrics about, for instance, the Peoria opera house, "chicken-mobiles" and the Cubs. His five-piece backing band occasionally rocked out, and there were more than a few coordinated cheers. There was also this: After every song, Stevens applauded himself. Of course, nobody in the room took issue. When Brother Sufjan's Traveling Salvation Show comes to town, the faithful flock.