Photo: Daniel Boud
It’s the hardest part of being an artist – letting go of your work – and Sufjan Stevens lets go all the way. In the first of his performances for Vivid 2015, he transformed the Concert Hall into a mesmerising montage of his life’s narrative. First thought when the lights came on is that it had to be this venue – such a large sound compared to the record and the seating meant that most of the crowd didn’t hold up their smartphones for the entire show.
One by one, his band members came to the stage in a theatrical mode and incrementally brought Carrie & Lowell to life. It is strange to hear the same lyrics uttered live when listening to the record feels like intruding into a private therapy session. And especially when a large part of the vocals are in Stevens whispered, almost spoken style.
The lighting was violent and in true Vivid fashion, it worked with the audio behind it. From heavenly blue light washing over the band singing multi-part harmonies in “Death With Dignity”, to harsh red strobes in “Drawn To The Blood”, the playful-sombre dynamic of Stevens’ music was realised in full form. And I’m left wondering how cathartic this experience is for Stevens himself. At least he seemed to be wiping his eyes throughout the show – from tears or sweat, we’ll never know. But it is hard not to feel something when he stares into the crowd singing, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Stevens and his band pulled out a whole different collection of instruments – box guitar, ukelele, chimes and banjos. All of which gave the show a rich sound that comes across as slightly coarser than the record – it’s by no means easy listening. In his live rendition of “Fourth of July”, he stretches out the final line, “We’re all going to die”, into a violent thrashing crescendo that definitely clears up misconceptions that Sufjan mainly writes from his imagination.
He’s no stranger to preaching on stage and surprisingly didn’t speak for nearly the first hour. But once he did, Stevens dove into topics difficult and divine, from grief to prayer (And he put on what looked like a kid’s cap to do so). At times, it sounded like a Matthew McConaughey script, “We all come from dust and we return to dust.” But he did express his grasp on mortality in a poetic way: “In grief, we forget that we are capable of illumination.” It’s a shame that most of the audience was laughing – I don’t think it was meaningless audience chitchat that he was going for.
The Concert Hall lighting panels were given a church window cutout and wavered during the show between old-school home videos and landscapes. Most of us were familiar with the subject matter of his latest record – his troubled relationship with his mother, who passed away in 2012 – but the home videos flickering in the back of his performance made it all feel very exposed. And while the band performed instrumental jams in between tracks, the lighting got frantic and it felt like we were opened up to Stevens’ raw frustrations and painful deliberations – or perhaps what his dreams are like.
But then Stevens pars it down to the bare essentials – when he performed solo with an acoustic guitar on “Eugene” and “The Only Thing.” I won’t lie – when he repeated, “Should I tear my eyes out now?” in a hushed sense of defeat, it did make me well up.
We heard plenty of old tracks after the Carrie & Lowell performances, such as 2010’s “Futile Devices,” 2004’s “To Be Alone With You” and an especially big cheer for 2005’s “Chicago.” And then, what came as most unexpected was an extended light show that could be a Vivid exhibition in itself, with disco balls, flashing panels and strobes over a (very loud) instrumental jam. Stevens received multiple standing ovations, standing humbly with his band and thanking us for letting him return to our weird and wonderful country. And one lasting legacy: “That’s my prayer – look alive, be alive.”
Sufjan Stevens plays the Sydney Opera House tonight, Sunday and Monday – his only Australian shows. For tickets, head to http://vividlive.sydneyoperahouse.com/program/sufjan-stevens!