Words by Christine Javier
Photos by Leticia Molina
It was a stellar Friday evening at the Fox Theater in Oakland, California, United States, Northern Hemisphere, on planet Earth. The sold-out crowd was in for an out of this world performance of Planetarium, a galactical project by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister, whose summer tour only spanned across four days in four cities.
Show opener, Thao Nguyen (of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down) has been touring as a solo female artist and multi-instrumental musician. She’s got that folk rock, southern vibe from her early roots in Virginia being a first-generation Vietnamese-American. Her guitar influence came from being surrounded in her bluegrass upbringing, and her impressive finger-picking style evolved throughout the night from guitar to mandolin and banjo. Thao and drummer Jason Slota got the crowd started with “Fear and Convenience” and “Kindness Be Conceived.” Her fourth and newest album A Man Alive marks “Departure” as her latest hit––combining her distinct vocal wails and high pitched mandolin riffs as she explores the relationship with her long absent father. While it’s certainly true this theme is a common tribulation especially amongst Asian-Americans, it’s Thao’s striking style and dedicated activism that pulls her up as she continues to rise amongst other female indie folk pop artists.
The supergroup consisting of Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner (guitarist, notably known from The National), James McAlister (percussionist), and Nico Muhly (composer) soon graced the stage for a breathtaking performance of Planetarium. Support came from three trombonists, a violinist and, and a viola player. While Sufjan Stevens needs no introduction as a singer and songwriter, this collaborative concept album transcends an intergalactic voyage of outer consciousness.
Each planet explores various astrological, mythical and scientific themes tied to its ruler and how it relates to our experimental human awakening. It can feel slightly escapist tying their song “Venus”––being the goddess of love in mythology––and relating it to remembering our first sexual experiences. “Jupiter”––with the most moons and scientifically known as a failed star due to its elements resembling the sun in our solar system––is deemed as “the loneliest planet” which rules expansion, travel and the characteristics of a Sagittarian’s competitive quest to the top. “Language can stress reality, and reality is a social construct” Stevens says as he jokes with the audience about quantum physics and the voyage of mind expansion.
Learning about the intricacies of knowing thyself and how we are affected by the planetarium is the ultimate journey towards your self healing––i.e. your sun is who you came to be on this planet and how you deal with things daily, your rising is your higher self, who you are becoming and how others perceive you and how you present yourself to others, while your moon sign is how you deal with your inner emotions behind closed doors. With Stevens’ lighthearted stage presence and artistic creative endeavor for Planetarium (originally performed live in 2012), Dessner, McAlister, and Muhly gave a touching two track encore with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and a Bowie tribute of the classic “Space Oddity.” This is Ground Control to Major Tom, may you find your meaning and continue to protect our best planet that we get to stand on, Mother Earth.