Music

Review: Sufjan Stevens, Vivid Sydney

It was always going to be different this time. Last here for Vivid LIVE in 2012, Sufjan Stevens performed as part of the Planetarium collaboration, with composer Nico Muhly and The National’s Bryce Dessner. This time, the scope is much smaller, and much more personal.

Stevens returned to the Sydney Opera House to open Sydney’s Vivid Festival on this windy, rainy night in support of his Carrie & Lowell album, replacing the vastness of the solar system with the intimacy of deeply personal songs about his difficult relationship with his mother, who abandoned him as a baby, and died recently after a battle with cancer. Named after his mother and step-father, the album explores some pretty deep family issues that Stevens had not previously dealt with. It’s a raw and emotional record, and in the run up to this album tour, Stevens had expressed concern about the toll that might be taken on his mental health, performing this material night after night.

We knew we were in for a pretty intense evening. But soon after Stevens, and his five backing multi-instrumentalists arrive on stage, it’s quickly clear that the album’s musical palette has been broadened significantly in the live context. For a start, drums – which are completely absent on Carrie & Lowell – are at times used to crushing effect, with early highlight ‘Fourth Of July’ building to a thumping climax.

The principal instrument throughout remains Stevens’ voice, sweet, high and delicate, it conveys so much emotion that there are moments when the rest of the band, brilliant as they are, become largely redundant. Some of the most powerful moments are when the band step back, and Stevens performs solo, as on the devastating ‘Eugene’, one of the many beautifully crafted and heartbreakingly sad songs on show tonight. Every song from Carrie & Lowell is performed, though not in sequence, and, interspersed with a few selections from Sufjan’s impressive back catalogue. After performing a gorgeous take on Illinois favourite, ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’, Stevens jokes “Even the cheery, strummy songs are about death” .

“Sufjan himself is visibly moved at times, as he feels his way through material that’s clearly still very fresh for him”

Throughout the show, the lighting design goes a long way to bringing these sad songs to life. LED screens display old Super 8 footage, sunsets and rolling waves, while layers of coloured light wash over the band and crowd, immersing us completely in the performance. It amounts to one of the most moving and beautiful shows I’ve ever seen, every note imbued with power and meaning, and bringing me to the point of tears more than once throughout the evening. Sufjan himself is visibly moved at times, as he feels his way through material that’s clearly still very fresh for him.

It takes until after the twelfth song of the evening for Stevens to acknowledge the audience, breaking a tension that had been building since the opening number. After thanking us for coming, and telling us how much he loves Sydney, and Vivid’s “festival of lights on buildings”, he begins a lengthy rumination on how “we are given by God eternity in our hearts, but our bodies are finite”; and how we are built of sound and light and how every day we become dust, and rejuvenate. How we should live like we are alive.

‘Blue Bucket of Gold’ the final track on Carrie & Lowell closes the main set, but it takes on a vastly different form tonight, as the simple melody builds to an elongated post-rock jam, with the intensity of Mogwai or Sigur Ros. It’s a similar transformation, and effect, that The National’s ‘About Today’ goes through when performed live, with strobing lights, and a monstrous bassline that seems to shake the foundations of the Opera House.

The band return for an encore, which contains some of Stevens’ most loved songs, including ‘The Dress Looks Nice On You, and ‘For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti’. Finally comes Sufjan’s best known song – ‘Chicago’ – a joyful song about escape, and, after the heartbreak of the previous two hours, leaves us feeling elated.

We made our way back out, down the famous steps of the Opera House, and looked over a city bathed in Vivid’s coloured lights. The rain had stopped, and the wind had eased – it felt like we had been through a kind of rebirth: taken apart and made new again by Stevens’ powerful reflections on life and death.

Stevens plans to return to Australia in 2016 – if you get the opportunity to see him, seize it.

Photo by Dan Boud for Vivid LIVE

Setlist

Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)

Death With Dignity

Should Have Known Better

Drawn to the Blood

All of Me Wants All of You

Eugene

John My Beloved

The Only Thing

Fourth of July

No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross

Carrie & Lowell

The Owl and the Tanager

In the Devil’s Territory

Casimir Pulaski Day

Futile Devices

To Be Alone With You

Blue Bucket of Gold

Encore:

Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois

The Dress Looks Nice on You

For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti

Chicago