Sufjan Stevens, Barbican, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Americana with a twist
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

As the anxious throng at the returns desk confirms, Friday's sold-out Barbican show by Sufjan Stevens is the hot ticket in town - evidence of the growing reputation of this most singular of singer-songwriters.

Unlike many American acts, Stevens is far too individual a talent to slot neatly into the standard "nu-folk" rubric, although many of his songs are rooted in his country's banjo and guitar-picking traditions. That much becomes obvious when his band takes the stage, with its five-piece horn section balanced by three players who, like Stevens himself, scurry between guitars, grand piano, bass and celesta, further multi-tasking by shaking and rattling sundry small percussion devices along with the formidably talented jazz drummer, who drives the ensemble with impressive industry.

It's surely the first band in which French horn, banjo and celesta are integral parts of the sonic palette - an indication of the breadth of Stevens's musical vision, in which the classically trained oboist has yoked together American genres from the marching-band music of Ives and Sousa, the big-country sweep of Copland, popular Broadway show-tunes, the elegance of Ellington, and the urgent minimalist cycling of Reich, Glass and Adams, along with more familiar folk and rock forms. The result is the musical equivalent of the Great American Novel, which has found an appropriate outlet in Stevens' 50 States project - one album for each American state, of which only Greetings From Michigan and last year's sublime Illinoise have so far been completed.

Friday's show was drawn largely from these two albums, with brief nods towards his earlier Seven Swans and a new box of Christmas Songs. Two large piles - one of inflatable Santas, the other of inflatable Supermen - crowd the front of the stage, hinting at a light-hearted mood that is confirmed when the band appears wearing Mardi Gras masks and coloured-paper butterfly wings. "My name for the evening is Majesty Songbird," announces the composer, differentiated from the butterflies by a pair of eagle wings, "and my band is the Magical Butterfly Kite Brigade."

This plays on the twee overtones of his work, in which Stevens presents himself as a sort of gifted naïf, an over-educated, ingenuous über-nerd more familiar with Sunday school than smoky dives. His song introductions evoke a simpler, more innocent time - the summer-camp encounter with a bizarre insect-bird that inspired "The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!", and the tale of his father's ritual burning of a rubbish-heap so vast the conflagration set alight a ring of 25 cedars, requiring the same number of firemen to extinguish it, which presages Seven Swans.

The set leans heavily on Stevens's greatest hits - the wonderful, personal tributes to "Chicago" and the fading industrial bustle of "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)"; the touching "Casimir Pulaski Day", about a friend diagnosed with cancer; the calm recounting of the serial murders of "John Wayne Gacy, Jr"; and the super-hero reflections of "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts", during which the inflatable Supermen are launched into the audience. Throughout, there's a curious tension between Stevens's voice - small, self-effacing and vulnerable - and the horn arrangements, which scurry in and out of the sometimes peculiar time-signatures, scaling the scores with an industrious charm that recalls the Steve Reich Ensemble.

Late on in the set, during "The Worst Christmas Ever", the inflatable Santas are also heaved into the audience, with the instruction that we should bat them about like beach-balls as the band plays. They prove to be whistling Santas, and the ensuing bricolage of squeaks and wheezes adds its own humorous patina to an already light-hearted song, the perfect climax to an evening in which apparent extremes of ambition and modesty are effortlessly resolved.