Review: Sufjan Stevens – A Reflection

Art & Culture

As a long-time Sufjan fan who has waited for a very long time to see him, but also a weather-worn gig-goer, this was a show that balanced on an anticipatory tightrope. High expectations can be a recipe for disappointment and many past bubbles have deflated sadly when confronted with the reality of shoddy sound, lacklustre showmanship or just plain bad singing! Praise be (an appropriate exclamation considering the often hymnal quality of Stevens’ music) I needn't have worried. From the opening moments, when the hall lights shifted from full white to black before rising slowly to reveal a silhouetted Stevens rendering a plaintive piano/vocal piece (Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou) from 2010’s Age of Adz) the performance was something I’d quite possibly describe as perfect.

Stevens and his band went on to perform all of his most recent album Carrie and Lowell (a collection of sparsely arranged and haunting songs dealing with the death of his estranged mother Carrie) in its (almost uninterrupted) entirety. 

It began with a fragile, solo performance of Carrie’s first track, Death with Dignity. Black-clad, physically slight, illuminated  by a single white spot-light and self-accompanied on only a fingerpicked guitar, Stevens proceeded to captivate a full auditorium who listened in pin-drop silence to this delicate opening.  As stunning as this start was, I doubt many could have anticipated what was to follow because, whilst on record most of the songs make their impact through the subtle nuances of reverb trails and gentle vocal phrasing, the palette of sounds and superb visual effects deployed to present the rest of the album were quite simply astounding. The live arrangements ranged from the whispering quiet of the opener through to synth-layered (and loud) trance extensions, multi-voice choral segments and distortion-drenched harmonic hazes – often all within one song, while the light-effects and video-backdrop perfectly enhanced the ebbs and flows of the music. Rarely did this approach misfire as Stevens and his wonderful 4-piece ensemble struck a perfect balance of drama and subtlety throughout the 2-hour set.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance with such dynamic range before. The occasional vocal wavering on the quiet songs only served to heighten the emotional impact of those songs. This was an artist ‘feeling’ his songs very deeply. It ended with an incredible 10-minute version of Carrie and Lowell’s closing song Blue Bucket of Gold, which followed a seemingly odd (but in reality seamless) diversion into two songs from his two 2010 albums, Age of Adz and All Delighted People. When the crescendo of sound at the finale of Blue Bucket stopped and the lights went momentarily down to signal the end, the audience gave one of the most emphatic standing ovations I’ve witnessed. The performers bowed and waved (the only direct communication with the audience throughout the whole set) before departing to the wings. Five minutes of extremely loud ‘encore’ calls later, they returned, initially just Stevens performing one of Illinois’s standouts, Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.  What followed was more of a second act than an encore, as Stevens, now fully engaged and chatting freely with the audience, ran through several classics from his back catalogue culminating in a wonderful version of Chicago, another favourite from Illinois.

The band then stood together again and bowed to receive yet more ecstatic applause. They seemed as overwhelmed by what had just passed as the audience. Then it was over. The sense of mass jaw-dropping was palpable, as the crowd made its way out into the warm Bristol night, savouring a gig to cherish from surely one of the great talents of our era.