Sufjan Stevens’ live performances have been known to reach the eclectic, fanfareish energy of his music. Returning to his folk roots from the psychedelic pop explosion that The Age of Adz, Stevens’ recent album Carrie & Lowell is a much more stripped back affair and in so is the performance. There are only 4 other band members on stage, of which Stevens humbly introduces two thirds into the show, and much of the sound consists of a guitar or a guitar and ethereal soundscapes similar to those on the album. But with this small set-up Stevens reaches incredibly tall heights of emotional power.
For a couple of numbers the songs drift into convulsing danceable beats, but the highlights are when the feeling takes forefront, emotional climaxes of the songs intensified in astonishing, ground-shaking crescendos. ‘We’re all gonna die,’ Stevens croons repeatedly as the stage slowly gives way to red and white light that bursts out over audience faces, pulling everyone together in the moment. You don’t have to look to know that there are tears rolling down audience faces.
Along with Christian symbolism, dark and personal themes have been known to feature in Stevens’ work – this time he makes no attempt to mask them. But it’s not all quite so sorrowful. After performing most of Carrie & Lowell Stevens apologises for the morbid content and gives an inspiring talk about living with death before going into some more songs from his impressive back-catalogue.
Then the final song of Carrie & Lowell pulls us into an instrumental that manages to top those before it when you didn’t think it was possible. Finally he comes back for a solo number and brings the band back in for a stripped back version of his most well-known song, Chicago. After what we’d seen and heard it would have been wrong to perform with its original timbre, and the end is as satisfying as it should have been.
The loudness and intensity of the music dips and dives over the stripped back folk material with soft effortlessness, mirroring Stevens’ own voice as he sings lyrics that roll between intricate metaphorism and humble honestness. The result is a show that whilst although relatively stripped back carries a lot of energy. Say what you want, I’m an agnostic – but if God is real I believe he is with Sufjan Stevens, and last night, with the audience’s eyes glued to the stage channelling their energy into he and his band, I believed he was with all of us.
[image source: Jeremy Zimmerman, http://thekey.xpn.org/2015/04/10/illumination-sufjan-stevens-academy-music/]