Sufjan Stevens played three shows at Hammer Hall in Melbourne in late February 2016 and I was at one of them. This isn’t so much a review or critique of his performance as it is an account of my feelings and observations of the show in its entirety.
The night began with Sufjan playing tracks from his latest album Carrie & Lowell. The sound was so full of life, the vocal so full of emotion, and the songs from this most recent musical release, so full of darkness, despair, love, and, hope. I sat in my seat and I cried. Not in the way that you cry as a child when you fall over and hurt yourself. Not in the way that you cry when your period is due and you don’t know how to release the tensions held inside you. Not in the way you cry when you experience loss, real loss, loss of love or loss of life. I cried in the way that you cry when you hear stories told of husbands and fathers wildly running into the mouth of danger to save their wives and daughters and dying in the process. I cried in the way you cry when you are overcome with the most shaking of emotions – gratitude, relief, love. I cried quietly and I cried smiling. Those first few songs of the set were perfect.
The show was as much a light show as a musical one. The lighting effects and projected images on the backdrop, many of which were childhood photos of Sufjan with his Mother Carrie, and presumably Stepfather Lowell, added to the intimacy of the performance. Not personally drawn to the electronica and the synth experimental sounds, having been spellbound by the simplicity and raw delicacy of his acoustic tracks, I could find an appreciation for what Sufjan was presenting at the live show. The addition of the drums and the blistering bassline, the keyboard synths, the flashing lights, all brought a dynamic element to what is otherwise a terribly sombre and achingly melancholy series of songs that must be as difficult to perform as they would be to witness with full sensory capacity. The 10 or so minute extension of ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’ brought with it lights that danced erratically and sounds that grew sharp and increasingly unpleasant. I closed my eyes but I could still see blotches of lights of varying intensity. I cupped my eyes with my hands as the noise reached a thrashing crescendo. I wanted it to stop. To me it truly felt like a garish nightmare. The elongated finale of ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’ with its ferocious energy and pulsating monstrous breath, ended; and with it, so did the first set of the night. Sufjan and all his band members bowed and ran off back stage.
Though I didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time, my summation of this segment of the show has somewhat altered through deeper consideration. You see, it occurred to me that it really was a fitting and apt finale for a series of songs that were born from grief and that continue to sustain life through a diet of sadness and anguish. The lights and sounds that I was so distinctly averse to were leading me to the realisation that the manic anxiety of that escalating decline was on its way. In a metaphoric twist of my mind, the final giant clash of noise closing the first set of the night, signalled death itself – the longest relationship we, any of us, will ever have. Sobering thoughts indeed. Sufjan is a genius!
When Sufjan and his band emerged for the encore, the mood had shifted. While Carrie & Lowell is in every way an album embedded with a cohesive sense of grief, there is some lightness in it too, lightness in knowledge and acceptance of our collective fates. Standing up the front of the stage with his bandmates, there were no drums, no lights, no synth. This time, there was just a voice – Sufjan’s voice, sweet and loving and beautiful and calming.
He played for another half an hour in this way. Sharing one microphone with his bandmates , the warmth of his guitar and banjo bouncing playfully over and under the understated vocals of some of my favourite songs. In this form, his creation is sublime, pure magic.
Love, Gleeko xx