Moses Sumney shares his high (notes) at lavish opener of Bootleg Theater residency

Moses Sumney at the Bootleg Theater (Photo by Bronson)

What is the color of transcendent?

Singer, songwriter and experimental pop artist Moses Sumney returned on Wednesday night to the stage on which he first performed more than six years ago, the big room at the Bootleg Theater. By the end of the night, he had painted it in all shades of “Grae.”

That’s the title (stylized “græ”) of the double-album Sumney is releasing in two parts this year. The first arrives Feb. 21, and the second on May 15, and Wednesday night’s free show was a momentum-builder, the first of a month-long residency at the Bootleg, which is devoting its auxiliary room to a thought-provoking art installation by Sumney. (The installation will be open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, today through March 4, and the album will be streaming there in 3D audio via Amazon Music HD.)

Wednesday night’s performance, though, proved just this side of otherworldly. It was both lavish and lengthy, as Sumney, backed by a seven-piece band, treated a packed house to two sets of music spanning a tick over two hours, featuring selections from both parts. One of “Grae’s” larger themes is isolation, but it was impossible not to feel a sense of togetherness as the show progressed.

Sipping throat-coat tea and in virtuoso vocal form all night, Sumney joked about the album being a bargain (“You get two for the price of one”) and the lateness of the hour (“I hope you guys don’t have school tomorrow”). But he also fully engaged the crowd, some of whom lined up on Beverly Boulevard more an hour before doors opened.

The show’s communal spirit peaked during the final song of the first set, “Bless Me.” The tune, which appears on Part 2 of “Grae,” is about the “crooked alchemy” of a relationship on its last legs, and the singer’s hopes, as Sumney explained jokingly, “that I can just get something out of it, dinner or something, before it’s over.” Hence, the song’s buoyant gospel-soul chorus, “Bless me / before you go,” which the full-throated crowd embraced quickly. In fact, two audience members, a woman in the front row and a man who was stationed sidestage, were handed the mic by Sumney to deliver lead vocals for a couple rounds of the chorus. In popular vernacular, they killed it.

On that tune and others, Sumney proved not just an acrobatic vocalist but a keenly improvisational one. It’s as if his falsetto is driving full-throttle on a winding mountain road and never goes off the edge. On Wednesday, he was joined in his vocal aerobics by guest singers Serpentwithfeet and Ogi Ifediora, each of whom brought their A game.

As he showed on “Conveyor,” Sumney still employs some of the looping techniques that helped him carry large stages when he was a solo artist. His new compositions take on both a greater complexity and emotional nuance when fully orchestrated as they were Wednesday. Strings, keys, brass and woodwind commingled with synths and various electronics, as many of his band members took brief moments in the spotlight. Drummer Ian Chang aced the songs’ tricky beats. Mike Haldeman switched off between guitar and clarinet, and Peter Lee Johnson between synth bass and violin. Both Darin Thomas (violin) and Brandon Coleman (keyboards) had moments to shine. And John “Keek’ Keuch (saxophone) and Vikram Devasthali (trombone) added to the free-jazz feel that punctuated much of the set.

Sumney himself had settled into a comfortable groove by midway through the second set when he performed “Lucky Me,” a song he co-wrote with James Blake, followed by a cover of Björk’s “Come to Me.”

At the end, with the show running long, Sumney cut short a planned three-song encore and simply ended with an old favorite, “Plastic.” As the crowd filed out, perhaps still not believing that they got two-plus hours of this for free, one guy was singing softly to himself. It was the chorus from “Bless Me.”

Set 1: Colouour, Quarrel, In Bloom, Virile, Conveyor, Neither/Nor, Cut Me, Bless Me. Set 2: Two Dogs, Don’t Bother Calling, Bystanders, Me in 20 Years, Gagarin, Lucky Me, Come to Me (Björk cover), Doomed. Encore: Plastic.

||| Live: Moses Sumney returns to the Bootleg for shows on Wednesday, Feb. 19; Tuesday, Feb. 25; and Wednesday, March 4.

||| Previously: “Cut Me,” “Me in 20 Years,” Buzz Bands LA’s Favorite Videos of the Year (2019), “Polly,” “Virile,” Live at Desert Daze (Day 3)“Rank & File,” Coachella 2018, “Lonely World,” “Quarrel,” “Doomed,” “Lonely World,” “Worth It,” “Everlasting Sigh,” Live at the Echo, “Seeds,” Live at Make Music Pasadena, “Man on the Moon,” Live at the Echoplex, Ears Wide Open, Live at the Bootleg Theater