An odd sense of serenity surrounds singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. Onstage at the El Rey Saturday night, he appeared almost preternaturally calm, a blithe ringleader of a seven-piece band performing songs from his new album, “Illinois” (Asthmatic Kitty).
It’s the second installment in a promised series of albums celebrating all 50 states, which gives you some idea of Stevens’ grand ambition. In concert, everyone onstage was bedecked in black T-shirts emblazoned with an orange “I” and matching orange sweat pants (with the band’s three women adding pom-poms), and Stevens studded his hourlong set with cheers for various cities (“Jacksonville: Athens of the West!”); he comes across as the next great American eccentric.
There’s certainly a Whitmanesque attempt at broad, sweeping gestures. “Illinois” is filled with unexpected roadside attractions: UFO sightings, captured alligators, parades, monuments to comicbook heroes, the 1893 World’s Fair. Frank Lloyd Wright, Carl Sandburg (who asks, “Are you writing from your heart?”), Stephen Douglas and Abe Lincoln make appearances, as, in a haunting ballad, does John Wayne Gacy.
Filled with baroque arrangements, attenuated melodies, lyrics filled to the brim with language and incident (a typical song title: “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother”), the songs never quite get beyond a canter. Go too fast, you might miss something.
Stevens is the perfect tour guide: filled with stories about the places he’s been, willing to accept and find interest in whatever comes around the next corner.
That almost Zen calm makes its way into his songs. They wend their way through spare folk to gloriously ornate passages. Bits of Philip Glass’ early minimalism can be heard in “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”; a touch of Sun Ra can be heard in his electric piano, while the gentle vocals put one in mind of both Damien Rice or Belle and Sebastian.
While Stevens can sometimes tread perilously close to the precious, it’s understandable why he has been championed by the McSweeney’s crowd and NPR. But there’s thankfully no sense of put-on or hipster irony in his show. Stevens is the real thing, and it will be thrilling to watch his talents develop and ripen.
Stevens plays Gotham’s Bowery Ballroom Aug. 19-21.