When I walked into the Great American Music Hall on Wednesday night, I was handed a Christ-Mess Sing-a-Long booklet with a unicorn on the cover. While I had already gathered from the name of the event — Surfjohn Stevens’ Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice — that it wasn’t going to be a standard holiday concert, I wasn’t quite prepared for the awesome eccentricities that awaited me.
The Great American, which is already one of the Bay’s most gorgeous venues, was literally aglow with strings of Christmas lights reflecting off bows and baubles attached to headbands, elf ears, vests, and ugly sweaters throughout the dedicated audience. On stage, incense was burning and guitar techs were wading through piles of inflatable Santas and unicorns.
Sufjan Stevens and his band, decked out in capes, chicken suits, sombreros, nun’s habits, and so much more, opened with a few Christmas originals off the new Silver & Gold — Stevens' second (!) extensive collection of holiday Eps — before letting providence take the wheel — literally. “They said it couldn’t be done,” Stevens shouted, “but we brought the Wheel of Christmas into the Great American! It was an engineering feat!”
The enormous, Wheel-of-Fortune-style disc had a different carol brightly painted on each of its wedges. Fate decided that “Joy To the World” should begin the sing-a-long. Stevens smiled. “It’s a Christmas miracle!” The band launched in, and we opened our songbooks. The sound of 500 voices, alive with the Christmas spirit and mulled wine, is a truly incredible thing.
What we lacked in pitch, we made up in gusto. As we worked out way through the carols, our small hearts each grew three sizes.
“We had some really weird Christmas traditions growing up” Stevens divulged between songs. “I used to think my parents were like, bohemian and New Age and crazy, but I’ve come to realize that they were actually kind of socially inept. I actually just realized that this year.” As Stevens told us about one year’s tree of healing crystals and another year’s 12 trees for each of the 12 steps, thought up by his recovering alcoholic father, the Christmas madness on stage started to make more sense — that is, if he wasn’t just messing with us.
As the show built to it’s climax, the stage and some of the audience grew awash in bubbles, confetti, silly string, and streamers. For the big finale, Stevens transformed himself into the Christmas unicorn, dressed in a repurposed bike helmet and an impressive amount of balloons, singing over a frenzy of instrumentation, “I’m a Christmas unicorn/Find the Christmas unicorn/You’re a Christmas unicorn/It’s alright I love you!” as confetti and giant balloons rained down on everyone.
Despite the undeniably enjoyable bravado and theatrics, those rare, quiet moments with Stevens and his banjo are what make his music magical. The hushed simplicity of “Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” was the highlight of the performance. By the end, the entire audience had joined in with his soft croon. “As we sing together it’s a very powerful thing,” Stevens reflected. “I think it’s very important that we do this more often.” Here, here.