Concert Review: Sufjan Stevens, Sydney Opera House (May 23rd, 2015)

Sufjan Stevens at the Sydney Opera House

Seeing Sufjan Stevens in concert has been a dream of mine for a long, long time.

I’ve been a fan of his music for nearly a decade, and though I’ve loved all his albums and watched countless live performances on YouTube, I’ve never had the opportunity to see him perform live.  He doesn’t tour incredibly often, and whenever he did, it was always in places too far from home.  However, when it was announced that he was performing live at Sydney Opera House this May (for the annual Vivid Festival), I lost my shit, signed up for pre-sale and bought the most expensive/closest tickets to the stage I could find calmly went to my computer and purchased a ticket.

This current tour is in support of Stevens’ latest album, Carrie & Lowell.  The disc is a return to his folk/acoustic/banjo-driven roots, and is a definite change of musical direction from his previous electronic-heavy album, The Age of Adz.  The album deals with the death of Stevens’ mother, Carrie, whom passed away in 2012.  The album is beautiful, heartbreaking, uplifting and depressing all at the same time, and so I knew that seeing those songs performed live would be an emotional experience, and it certainly was.

Stevens’ stage show is visually sparse- just him, his drummer, guitarist, and female back-up singer.  Behind him, a projection ran, showing home videos and pictures of the Oregon landscape- a place heavily featured in his childhood and on the songs on the album.  Stevens mainly played acoustic guitar throughout the songs, but he, of course, had his banjo on hand for plenty of them.  He also sat at the piano for a few tracks, and my favourite thing was watching him play chimes, which he often did by just nudging his knee across them during songs.

Carrie & Lowell is such a fantastic album, so it was brilliant to hear and see each song performed live.  The highlights of the night were the “Drawn to the Blood”, where Stevens sang alone, illuminated only by a red light, “Fourth of July”, in which Stevens and his band’s eerie repetition of “we’re all gonna die” brought the entire Opera House (or maybe just me) to tears, and “Eugene”- a song that I had somewhat overlooked on the album- but which was so beautiful, that I cried for a second time during the show.  The lyrics have always touched me (“What’s left is only bittersweet/For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me/Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away/What’s the point of singing songs/If they’ll never even hear you?”), but Stevens’ performance was so stripped back, earnest and intimate, that I really felt as though I was there with him in the moment that he wrote the song, feeling what he felt.  I can’t imagine there were many dry eyes in the house after that performance; even Sufjan wiped his eyes after the song ended.

The biggest suprise of the night was the live rendition of “Blue Bucket of Gold.”  The track is another I’d previously overlooked; it’s the album’s closer, and is a nice enough song, though not one that’s ever really held my attention.  The live version was better, just in the fact that it was live, but mostly due to the incredible 10-minute, instrumental rock ending, which included an incredible light show, pulsing drums, and electronic music.   We were warned beforehand that the show would include flashing lights, but I really had no idea what I was in for.  I can’t really describe how incredible the ending was, but I summed it up with “HOLY SHIT”, as I stood to give a standing ovation.

The Carrie & Lowell portion of the show ended about halfway through the concert, and Stevens treated the audience with some of his older songs.  He played some crowd favourites, like “Casimir Pulaski Day”, as well as some of his lesser-known/older tracks, like “All The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” and “In The Devil’s Territory” (both from Stevens’ 2004 album, “Seven Swans”).  I’m not sure if it was intentional- though knowing Stevens, it was- but the second half was a beautiful change of pace from the first half of the show; while the first half seemed so mired down in the inevitability of death, the second half felt full of hope and the chance for redemption (mainly due to the mix of Christianity-influenced songs).  It was a beautiful juxtaposition that I definitely appreciated.   He skipped over fan-favourite “Chicago” (though I was told it was played at the previous night’s show), but he played one of my favourites, “Futile Devices.”  I had no expectations for the encore, and so I was pleasantly surprised with everything he pulled out.

It’s always a pleasant surprise when an artist sounds as good, or better, live than they do on their albums, and Stevens’ voice was beautiful last night.  He had a few missteps, like not quite reaching a high note during a song (to which he grimaced and apologized) and forgetting the lyrics to some of his older songs (he stopped in the middle of “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” as he forgot one of the lines in the second verse- thankfully, his vocalist helped him out.  Though I would’ve loved to gone on stage and help him remember!), but it honestly gave the show an even more intimate vibe.  He explained that he had “jet-lag brain” but I don’t think anyone minded.  He spoke a bit more during the second half of the show, telling us all a long-winded, yet amusing story, about how his parents viewed death and how they taught him about death as a child.  I know I’ve called this show intimate twice already, but it really felt as though I was just sitting in Sufjan’s living room, watching him play a few songs and listening to him talk about life.

Honestly, last night’s show was incredible.  I was in awe the entire night of just how amazing Stevens is, not just as a live performer, but as a musician in general.  How he could turn such a depressing subject into such beauty is a wonder to me, but I’m incredibly grateful that he’s chosen to share such personal songs with us. I hope that last night is just one of many Sufjan Stevens concerts I’ll attend, but even if it was the only show of his I’ll ever get to see, it was a perfect one.

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