What a stunner, and maybe that’s exactly what Sufjan Stevens’ most rabid devotees knew to expect. But it’s fair to say a huge chunk of Friday’s turnout for this idiosyncratic visionary moseyed to the Outdoor Theater anticipating something altogether mellower, more of a twee, acoustic-based set culled from his latest treasure, Carrie & Lowell, complemented by a few pearls from his catalog. You might even have been lulled into thinking that was still the plan as “Seven Swans” got this unmissable set underway, considering its hushed, dam-about-to-burst construction. The adoring faithful, however, surely picked up on what was about to happen well before Sufjan’s wings extended like Icarus fired up for a meltdown. And by the time he smashed his banjo in a high leaping stage crash at the cataclysmic end of that piece, everyone knew: This was going to be something incredible.
“Welcome to the Church of Coachella,” Stevens announced, donning an outrageous suit that made him look like a life-size homage to Keith Haring. For much of the set, however, he more resembled a colorful, less-bleak Trent Reznor, bouncing excitedly at his keyboard or mic stand. Stevens is certainly every bit the auteur that his darker forebear is, which this impeccable 50-minute overview of his endlessly eclectic career proved. Everything about the performance delivered on the promise of such an auspicious opening, with more than a few highlights revived from The Age of Adz, including the mind-boggling suite “Impossible Soul”, which at 20-plus minutes ate up almost half his time. Every twisty detour of it was magnetic, though, from Sufjan’s frenzied guitar solo (“This is for Slash,” he half-smirked) to the elaborate, Peter Gabriel-esque outfits he quick-changed into by the conclusion. Each new array enhanced the multilayered music; each song inspired wilder imagery. An extraordinary talent, none quite like him, in full flower. –Ben Wener