Adelaide Festival Review: Sufjan Stevens + NGAIIRE – Thebarton Theatre (29.02.16)

Okay, so if you’ve been keeping tabs on Sufjan Stevens‘ recent Australian shows, you’ll have gotten the inkling that they have been all-in, emotional affairs. Of course, it’s to be expected of Sufjan, that his music presents such delicately evocative narratives and especially with his latest album Carrie & Lowell, there’s some intensely personal stories to be told.

NGAIIRE was already performing when I’d made my way to my seat, kicking myself for not arriving earlier to catch her full set. She cut a powerful figure on stage, her blonde mane further illuminated by the stage lighting like a halo. On either side, Sarah Belkner and Elana Stone were on added keys and vocals, making this trio a brilliant representation of Sydney talent.

What was great to note about NGAIIRE’s set is the way her voice is complemented by those of Belkner and Stone – they blend well together in a way that makes it possible for the listener to notice the complexities and textures within the songs’ arrangements while being pulled in by the lyricism. Of course, NGAIIRE’s pipes are a stand out – she digs deep and when she projects, it’s like you can see her body move with each wave of her rich vocals. Pouring out passionately and strongly, her voice filled the theatre out and making those of us in attendance look on attentively, completely entranced.

As I’d expected from the main set, Stevens’ headline show was essentially two sets – the crowd was first treated to the majority of Carrie & Lowell, accompanied by a stunning light and visual display, with some other cuts inserted (“Vesuvius”, “The Owl and The Tanager”). Following the encore, Stevens and his band returned for a six song mini-set that had the crowd on their feet delivering a stomper standing ovation for the second time in the evening.

The bulk of the set featured little to no chatter from Stevens out to the crowd aside from a ‘thank you’ every few songs; it was all about the music and you know what? Fair enough. The fragility of his voice during certain songs (“Fourth of July”, “Should Have Known Better”) was gorgeous to listen to in this capacity, while the talents of the rest of his band were also highlighted incredibly. The sounds that rang out through the theatre left the crowd looking on, only pausing to break this ethereal bubble to applaud loudly at the end of each song. From memory, the environment tonight was almost the same as when Bon Iver performed in the room some years ago – you couldn’t take your eyes away from the stage at any moment, even if they were brimming with tears.

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When Sufjan returns to the stage for the encore, he takes some time to tell us about his parents and share some funny anecdotes with the crowd. We find out his parents were heavy into reincarnation and animals and laughs as he mentions that this tour made him realise that the ‘Sufjan Stevens’ musical legacy is turning out to be a rather depressing one, what with all the songs about death. Self-deprecating but incredibly charming all in the same beat, Stevens brought the mood up and as the band entered their acoustic encore run of songs, the crowd was right there along with them.

Finishing with “Chicago”, Stevens and his band bid the Adelaide crowd farewell once more as we were all on our feet, clapping madly (some of us wiping away tears for the umpteenth time that night) – it truly was a special night of live music to be a part of and for those of us who’d never been at a Sufjan show before, I think it’s safe to say we came away having finally gotten it.

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