Combining stunning songcraft with discount-store Halloween costumes and two-foot-tall inflatable elves, Sufjan Stevens’s “Xmas Sing-a-Long” at the 9:30 Club Saturday night split the difference between an all-ages indie-rock show and a grade-school holiday pageant. “Christmess,” to use the apt descriptor printed on the lyric sheets distributed as patrons filed into the club. Priced at $20, tickets had sold out in a flash, with buyers’ names printed on the tickets and I.D. checks at the door to discourage scalping.
Stevens, one of the most original and beguiling singer-songwriters of the 21st century, has released dozens of original Christmas songs since 2006, running the gamut from reverent to ridiculous, giddy to despondent. As a body of work, They capture the emotional tumult of the holidays beautifully. The first four songs of the nearly two-hour set evoked those extremes: Opener “Christmas Woman” sounded like the Ewoks covering Paul Simon, while the banjo-driven “Lumberjack Christmas / Nothing Can Save You From Christmases Past” is as sobering a lamentation as you’d infer from the title.
A trippy, Auto-Tuned version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” introduced a set of traditional carols, which featured several spins of a giant game-show wheel bearing the names of a dozen Christmas standards Stevens led the audience in singing. The likes of “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride” (spelled “Slay Ride” on the song-wheel) clashed like the garish Christmas sweaters worn (ironically?) by some college-age attendees against Stevens’s originals. This was only the second show of the tour, and while Stevens appeared relaxed and confident, he occasionally seemed concerned by its ramshackle vibe. “Maybe we should play a real song now,” he said after a few spins of the wheel.
The eight-piece band performed in Yule-drag — one appeared to be dressed as a Christmas tree, another in a Superman costume and chicken mask. Many a Pitchfork-endorsed band has strangled themselves onstage in this kind of preciousness, a fate the evening avoided, if only just.
Before returning for a two-song encore from his secular catalogue, Stevens closed the set proper with the 12-and-a-half-minute epic that inspired the tour’s main visual motif: “Christmas Unicorn.” The song builds into a cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Joy Division’s 1980 hit was the only tune most of the crowd seemed not to recognize.
Klimek is a freelance writer.