Silver fringe dangling from his candy-cane-colored elbow pads, Stevens stood in front of a spinning "Wheel of Christmas," flanked by band members dressed as an angel, reindeer, unicorn, Santa Claus, and Superman.
Along with projects such as his acclaimed 2005 concept album, Illinois, Stevens has spent considerable time "subverting and deconstructing" holiday standards whose titles - "Jingle Bells," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "Slay Ride" - were written on the wheel. He's also penned often luminously beautiful seasonal tunes. Over the years, he said, hate turned to love.
Amid aimless goofing, Stevens was sincere in his affection for Christmas kitsch and the more serious holiday music traditions that mesh so well with his openhearted, spiritual-questioning side.
"This is a psychedelic nightmare to some of you," he said to the capacity crowd, "but to me it's a dream come true."
The evening was plagued by poor pacing and sound problems.
"We practiced for weeks!" Stevens said halfway through, apologetic and incredulous. All was forgiven by the adoring crowd, but it was apt that the only non-holiday original song, the autobiographical "Chicago," turned on a repeated mea culpa: "I've made a lot of mistakes."
He also made a lot of compelling music. He played keyboards, guitar, and banjo and led a band featuring trombone and tuba. They mixed in a sample of Queen's "We Will Rock You" on "Holly Jolly Christmas"; played "Mr. Frosty Man" as gnarled garage rock; "O Holy Night," as a reverent sing-along; and Prince's "Alphabet St." as an electro-funk workout.
The show gathered momentum with sparkling originals "Sister Winter" and "Christmas in the Room," which underscored Stevens' lovely, largely unadorned voice as he sought some essence of Christmas spirit far from mistletoe-and-holly foofaraw. It peaked with "Christmas Unicorn," which started off plaintively examining Yuletide contradictions, then became an ecstatic mash-up with Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."
Contact Dan DeLuca
at 215-854-5628, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.