Music Seen: Sufjan Stevens + Marie Stella

Port City Music Hall, October 2 | SPACE Gallery, September 29
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  October 7, 2009

The ironic thing about Sufjan Stevens's belated debut in Portland was that a big show for this town is an intimate event for him: the sprawling-yet-deeply-personal songwriter/composer brought a relatively small four-person backup band to a long sold-out Port City Music Hall Saturday to perform a mix of "50 states project"-era classics and new songs that hadn't yet been road-tested. There were no costumes, no cheerleaders, no party favors; just earnest quirk and heartache, well-wrought and soberly delivered with a drum-machine pulse.

A subtle but persistent desire for a higher-energy set was quelled by pristine sound and Stevens's whispery tenor. The liberal dose of material from Greetings from Michigan, Illinois, and Seven Swans was difficult to pull off out of context (with a small band and no thematic underpinning), but Stevens handled it well: his religious explorations are still piercing and, at worst, his archaic hyper-local or historical references evoked pleasant nostalgia in the absence of orchestral patriotism ("Who was I four years ago that found this so stirring?"). As for the new material -- jammy and borderline-electronic, but still touching -- it desperately needs some editing (most of the handful of songs approached the 10-minute mark, or felt like it did), but there's a fair shot that Stevens's compositional rigor will still command fawning admiration when it's not sewn together in a tapestry of flawed and glorious Americana.

A few days earlier, an opening set (for the Screaming Females) at SPACE Gallery by the sharp year-old indie-rockers Marie Stella offered an excellent performance by lead singer Sydney Bourke. The former Satellite Lot frontwoman finds the sweet spot between being light and forceful, projecting through intimidating shards of guitar with confidence and, better yet, charisma.

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