Sufjan, the Technicolor Dreamboat

Sufjan Stevens and the Pacific Mozart Ensemble at Zellerbach set a world record for earnestness.

This week, 24 local moms and dads with day jobs and phone bills became much cooler than their kids for a few hours when they teamed up with indie rock’s critical darling Sufjan Stevens for a world-record-breaking forty-piece performance at Cal’s Zellerbach Hall.

Not content to let the centuries-old art of singing in large groups be relegated to churches and weird Early Music festivals, Berkeley’s Grammy-nominated Pacific Mozart Ensemble staged an artistic coup by teaming with Stevens. The event capped twenty years of mixing standard symphonic fare with bold, modern interpretations of songs by Dave Brubeck, Meredith Monk, Stone Temple Pilots, Portishead, and Björk.

A choral version of “Creep,” you ask? WTF, mate?

“People assume that our concerts are not going to be interesting,” says Eric Freeman, a 36-year-old ensemble member from Montclair. “I can’t tell you how many times somebody has come to the show not expecting to be entertained and walked away agog; just agog. I think that when people think about choirs, they think about church singing or what they may have been forced to do when they were in high school or something.”

Determined to buck that trend, the all-volunteer, donation-dependent ensemble performed a show in June featuring a track from Stevens’ 2005 album, Come on Feel the Illinoise. “It was really fun, so a week or two later when I heard that Sufjan was coming to Zellerbach, I e-mailed his label Asthmatic Kitty an mp3 of our performance, saying, ‘How about a choir for the show,’ not expecting to get anything back,” Freeman says.

“We’re the kings of the cold call,” adds Lynne Morrow, who directs the ensemble. “We aim to be the go-to choir for touring acts.”

Freeman got a polite response from the label’s peons, who said they’d pass the offer along. Three weeks later, the singer’s tour manager e-mailed saying they were into it. Now all the group had to do was arrange Stevens’ live set for a choir by ear, rehearse, and hot-slot 24 select members of the ensemble into his already-huge live show. No sweat.

Freeman got his hands on a twelve-song set list and recordings of ten-month-old performances and pounded out new choral sections over the instrumentals using earphones, pencil, and paper. Rehearsing every week on its own dime at the Crowden Music School in Berkeley, the choir cobbled together backups for Stevens’ entire set.

“I sent it to them and was like, ‘This is what we’re doing,'” Freeman says. “I got back this very enthusiastic response. Not only, ‘We like what you’re doing, but here’s four more songs we want you to do.'” Stevens’ tour manager tagged on an extra two hours for soundcheck last Tuesday, and by showtime it was as though the choir always had been there.

First came Sufjan’s “magic butterfly brigade,” which included no less than fourteen violinists, cellists, a brass section, a drummer, and a guitarist — all bedecked with multicolored butterfly wings and feathery face masks. Then came the singer himself in the Halloween costume of the year — a high school band uniform with a huge pair of psychedelic eagle wings that flapped as he bowed.

A little context: Born and raised in Michigan, this 31-year-old, hyperliterate, folk-music smarty-pants is indie rock’s McDreamy. Critics worship him and likely comprise the majority of buyers for the 191,000 copies of Illinoise he’s sold. The songs of the onetime writing student at NYC’s New School for Social Research go heavy on stories of family and God, mostly sung barely above a whisper. He has no visible tattoos or piercings, he shaves regularly, and his hair is cut and combed. The female 60 percent of the audience wanted to bring him home to Mama, while the males wanted him to teach them how to roll sushi in order to get indie girls. This guy is about as edgy as a bowling ball, and yet his earnestness obliterates cynicism.

Tuesday night’s set didn’t redefine indie rock or any type of music. It just overwhelmed the audience with a palpable sense of hope, renewal, strength, and optimism, supplemented by borderline-kitsch vintage film clips of little kids playing with kites, birds flying, clouds, and snow. Parental discretion was unnecessary.

The only moment remotely resembling heaviness was when Stevens introduced “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head” and pissed off A’s fans by saying “Go Tigers.” Two heckler dudes returned fire immediately and Stevens looked down at his piano, saying, “Sorry, it’s just been so long for us. Oh, I guess I really burned the mood there, didn’t I?”

No, no, you didn’t. From the inflatable crowd-surfing Superman and Santa dolls to the sheer spectacle of so many butterfly costumes, there was no way to burn the mood. This show was so chewy and sweet, I’m pretty sure I got three cavities just watching. And the members of the Pacific Mozart Ensemble couldn’t contain their glee as they rounded the back stretch and closed the show to a huge standing ovation, which actually meant something because two thousand people had just sat quietly in the dark for two hours without a bathroom break.

“Thanks so much, Berkeley,” the soft-spoken singer said. “We were in no way expecting such a big auditorium and such a huge crowd. I think this is the most people I’ve ever had onstage, a world record for Sufjan Stevens, and I want to thank you for bearing with us. It’s a lot up here — the costumes, the Santas, and Supermen, and butterflies; the orchestra and the choir. But when it really comes down to it, it’s just the songs and my simple notes and my little voice trying to sing above it all. Thank you.”

A stomping encore brought his little voice back, and just in case anyone thought Sufjan was all flash and no skills, he did a near-solo, two-song encore that enthralled once again.

The only thing left to do with the night was to go have milk and warm cookies with Dave Eggers and teach kids how to read. And it was a testament to Stevens’ skill to see so many grown-ups leaving with smiles on their faces, sometimes holding hands, and more than a few clutching a Santa or Superman like a two-year-old on Christmas Day.

Next week, Press Play will get back to endorsing heroin use, I promise.

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