There is no concert like a Sufjan Stevens concert. Every tour it seems he puts as much effort into his show — from the sound to the visuals to the lighting — as major pop stars with theatrical arena shows. The difference is that he deals in gravity instead of spectacle. Kanye West performs on indoor mountains with jeweled masks because his goal is to create an experience, one that emphasizes grandeur. The Flaming Lips love costumes and rainbow imagery because they want to create drug-addled euphoria. Sufjan is also trying to create an experience, but his material is importance. While you’re at his musical mercy, he aims to make those hours feel like a crucial moment in your miserable life.
That’s a tough goal and one that can easily fall into pretension. Sufjan peppers in levity and playfulness and knows when to take his foot off the pedal. That’s why the show was divided into two parts: first, the awe-inspiring newly arranged Carrie & Lowell songs followed by a more minimalist approach to his most beloved hits. It totaled at a 2 hour run-time. For the first time I felt like I had seen a comprehensive, classic setlist from him.
The first half was unforgettable, breathless stuff. He played with just a 5 piece band, which seems restrained for him. Keep in mind, he once toured with a dozen people wearing wings. Last time, he was covered in neon tape and backed with futuristic hula hoopers. A regular band wearing regular clothes is notable, but fits the album’s tone.
Sufjan said of this album, “This is not my art project, this is my life.” So how do you translate that to a concert?
What was most remarkable of this section of the concert was that they were throwing everything at you: gorgeous visuals, bombastic new arrangements and a progression of songs about life and death that will run you through an emotional gauntlet. Behind the band were 9 sliver screens equipped with movable spotlights at the top and bottom. It’s a simple set up that he does a lot with — sometimes it would display vintage family vacation-style film reel, or stunning high resolution landscapes as if seen through church windows. Sometimes it was twitchy geometric patterns, sometimes it was vibrant gradients that expanded the full length of the stage as the full band joined in on the song. You would enjoy this show if you were deaf.
“Eugene” in Durham, NC. YouTube Credit.
But the arrangements are what made it worthwhile. In a Pitchfork interview, Sufjan said of this album, “This is not my art project, this is my life.” So how do you translate that to a concert? These are songs that sound like they were meant to be performed for you in a living room. Sufjan’s solution was to rip out the intimacy and make everything more epic and built on cathartic highs & lows. Sometimes this meant putting a laser-like synth solo in the middle of “All Of Me Wants All Of You,” or something as simple as heavily delayed echo that went 4 layers deep on his simple, quiet songs.
“Fourth of July” was a centerpiece of this remix. Normally a quiet song with intense dread, it becomes weirdly magical with new touches. Every line was punctuated with a weird sound effect — a wurlitzer riff, or sometimes just an angry, bellowing bass that literally shook seats. The ending refrain, “We’re all going to die,” was stretched to 5 more measures, with newly ramped up crescendo until it sounded like an Explosions in the Sky climax. I hesitate to link to a YouTube video because it doesn’t do it justice; again, it’s the experience of sitting through songs that dance around this theme in varying intensity, until it finally punches you over and over again leaving one beautiful crater.
It wasn’t just Carrie & Lowell songs that got the kitchen sink treatment. Songs that fit in like “Redford” and “The Owl and the Tanager” were placed seamlessly along with the new stuff. But the big hits — “To Be Alone With You,” “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades,” and whatnot — filled up the second half. He let us know it was a new section by taking a break to talk to us, which inadvertently led to him explaining the plot of “Bring It On 2 (Bring It On Again).” Much needed levity.
“Fourth of July” in Hartford, CT. YouTube Credit.
These songs didn’t have much more than warm lighting and gentle acoustic backups. “Chicago,” was closer to the gentle “Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version” from The Avalanche than the xylophone and flute mania on Illinois. But it was a welcome break, a chance to focus on just the songs, and refresh your ears with new favorites.
He returned to the sliver screens and visual assault at the end of the non-encore set with “Blue Bucket of Gold.” You wouldn’t think this would be the all-out banger, but he did it. Two disco balls had been inconspicuously lowered behind two of the sliver screens, so that when they were lit, it exposed the framework and truss of the screen. It made them look like prisms, and for a few minutes there was a tangible awe amongst the crowd. The song ends with ambient voices, but this rendition, they swell into another explosive post-rock climax. All cymbals clashing and glittering guitars cutting through it all. Flashing strobe lights, flashing hues, every effect at once.
I’ll probably be going to Sufjan Stevens concerts for the rest of my life. A lot of artists in indie and related genres don’t shy away from big statements about life and the human condition in their albums. A lot of bands are gifted with the ability to write and compose songs with heavy gravitas. Few try to translate that to their live shows, and even fewer succeed. Spectacle and sensory overload are easy. The immensity of living and dying? I don’t know how you’d even begin.