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Gig Review: Sufjan Stevens @ The Sydney Opera House, 28th January

“It’s a long life, only one last chance. Couldn’t get much better, do you wanna dance?”

If you’re looking for a fair and unbiased review of this show, you’re definitely at the wrong place.

Sufjan Stevens is basically my favourite person in the world, and I travelled up to Sydney from Melbourne for the sole purpose of seeing him play at the Opera House.  Naturally, I thought this show was pretty much the best thing ever. It was utterly and completely beautiful. It was as close to magic as music can get. But yet it was also thoroughly over-the-top, almost to the point of absurdity at times. Such are the fascinating contradictions of both the man and his music. This constant friction between the two sides of Sufjan’s music was only one of the many elements that made this show as enthralling as it was.

It has already gone down as one of my favourite shows of all time and was among the best two hours of my life, completely justifying the trip up to Sydney and then some.

But before Sufjan appeared on stage, Owen Pallett played his role as support act brilliantly. Opening for Sufjan must be one of the hardest gigs around, especially considering that he started just as doors opened, but the man from Canada did the job beautifully.

For the most part he simply stood on the Opera House stage, slightly to one side and with violin in hand, and delivered his beautiful music while three spotlights illuminated his figure. Although I’ve listened to his latest album (and only album under his real name) ‘Heartland’ quite a lot, I didn’t really recognise any individual songs, but suffice to say that every track he played was absolutely captivating.

He used loop pedals to great effect with his violin, creating an unbelievably full sound that filled the Opera House with ease, despite not having a backing band. He was an astoundingly good violin player,  and sounded a bit like a mix between Andrew Bird and a very mellowed out Patrick Wolf, which is just fine with me. Although I also don’t want to do the man a disservice by comparing his music to others, because it was brilliant in its own right.

Owen was completely charming, and had the crowd in the palm of his hands by the time he was wrapping up his set. He did what I thought was impossible for an opening act in this case: he actually added to the beauty of the occasion, and I look forward to seeing him live again as soon as I possibly can.

As Owen Pallett departed the stage to loud applause, it was a good opportunity to take in my surroundings. And what surroundings they were. I could not imagine a better place to see Sufjan Stevens live at than the Sydney Opera House. It was simply beautiful inside, with plenty of seating but still a feeling of intimacy and an enormous stage.

Admittedly I was seated a bit further back than I would usually prefer, in the middle of the balcony, but yet it honestly didn’t matter. The layout of the venue was so perfect that literally any seat in the house would have had a great view from the stage, and I actually really enjoyed having a bit of an overview of proceedings. It will be interesting to see how it compares to my seats at the front of stalls for tonight’s Melbourne show.

Even just from the opening act, it was clear that the acoustics were absolutely phenomenal, as one would expect from a world class venue such as the Opera House. It was such a majestic setting for the music of Sufjan Stevens, and added significantly to the palpable feeling of grandeur about the show.

The buzz of excitement around the Opera House was enormous as the arrival of Sufjan neared. I can remember wriggling around in my seat, physically unable to keep still due to anticipation. Every seat was full. The lights dimmed. It was time.

And just like that, looking as calm as anything, one Sufjan Stevens strolled onto the stage of the Sydney Opera House, along with a massive backing band that consisted of at least nine people from memory, including two drummers. The stage looked incredibly full, especially considering the sparse setup for Owen Pallet.

Sufjan, being Sufjan, was wearing some kind of fluro glowsuit that was matched to varying degrees by his band, creating a surreal stage effect when viewed from afar. True to the lyrics of his latest album, without fucking around Sufjan broke into his first song.

All Delighted People was the best opening to a concert that I have ever heard. It was one of my favourite songs from last year, and is also my favourite recent Sufjan song. It was sublime live, with Sufjan’s voice soaring lightly but yet powerfully as he took command of the night. Somehow his singing is even better live than in studio form. I didn’t know that was possible.

“And what difference does it make? Oh I love you a lot, I love you from the top of my heart.”

The song built magnificently to a climax, before stripping back to Sufjan’s voice and then going through the whole thing again. The moments where everything else faded away just to leave Sufjan were spellbinding, especially the nod to The Sound Of Silence.

One of the last refrains of “All delighted people raise their hands” actually saw much of the crowd solemnly raise their hands slowly into the air, creating for a surreal and beautiful shared moment in the surrounds of the Opera House. But the night was just getting started.

After the opening track the show settled into a more glitchy-electro feel for a while, more in line with ‘The Age Of Adz’. Even though I infinitely prefer Sufjan’s folk songs, the one thing that is permanent in his music is his stunning voice, and I could hear that voice singing anything and love it.

And I found the music of ‘The Age Of Adz’ to actually be really great live. The dual hit of Too Much and Age Of Adz in particular was fantastic, and gave Sufjan a chance to show off some of his unique and brilliant dance moves that had the entire crowd both entertained and very impressed. You couldn’t help but get the sense that this really is a reinvented man when compared to the Sufjan who declared he was sick of music last year.

It was then time for a folk song in Heriloom. I’m so glad that Sufjan is opting to play this song live, because it is a beautiful track that harks back to his early music, and in the Opera House it made for an awe-inspiring five minutes.

I believe that right up to this point I had pretty much been sitting in my seat, completely still, with my jaw slightly agape. I’m not even sure if I managed to clap for the first couple of songs. I was just so shell-shocked and amazed at what I was witnessing: I honestly could not believe that I was this close to Sufjan Stevens and that he was playing his music so divinely. I like to think that this said more than any amount of clapping every could.

I Walked and All For Myself certainly aren’t my favourite Sufjan songs, but it was impossible not to enjoy them live. You just got caught up in the majesty of what you were witnessing, with Sufjan’s two dancers and back-up vocals putting on a mesmering show behind him and the rest of his band perfectly complimenting the unique talent of the man himself.

When Sufjan paused his music to talk, he seemed almost anti-climatically normal, especially considering his exuberance when he was singing and dancing. He was completely charming, as one would expect, and often exhibited a very self-depreciating sense of humour, which naturally went over very well with the crowd. Hearing him speak live so eloquently and genuinely certainly didn’t help abate my fanboyness.

Vesuvius was introduced as a song about natural disasters, and was accompanied with very cool visual effects on the screen behind the stage, while The Owl And The Tanager was much more lowkey, whilst giving Sufjan’s vocals a chance to truly soar.

Sufjan told a long story about an eccentric and slightly insane sign-painter in the leadup to Get Real Get Right, and although it was pretty interesting the story probably out-stayed its welcome at nearly five minutes, when everyone was clearly dying to hear more of Sufjan’s music.

Futile Devices, easily the most ‘old Sufjan’ track from ‘The Age Of Adz’ was beautiful, but it was also unfortunately by far the shortest song of the set, seeming to only last just over one minute. The contrast with the song that was to follow could not have been greater.

For that song, and the last song of the main set, was the one and only Impossible Soul. I cannot be sure exactly how long the song was, but it certainly felt as if the 25 minute studio version was played in its entirety. The song contained almost too much insanity and fun to describe here, and it passed in a magnificent blur.

At one point the stage lights went down, only to reveal an enormous, illuminated diamond descending onto the stage, encapsulating the two backup vocalists and silhouetting Sufjan, who had donned some kind of fluro feather headress and skirt. Yes, skirt. And he looked fucking awesome.

The song itself was amazing, going through several stages including Sufjan’s use of an auto-tune, which was slightly off-putting however also pretty cool. And then, all of a sudden, with the euphoric lyrics of “Do you wanna dance?” ringing out powerfully around the Opera House, a thousand ballons were released from the ceiling onto the crowd, and suddenly everyone was standing up as one and dancing without a care in the world.

The Sydney Opera House was transformed, if only for a couple of minutes, to a hipster dance party as thousands of people let out all the emotion that had been building through the show. I will never forget that moment, with oversized balloons floating gently around the venue and the best voice in the world emanating from the stage.

“Boy, we can do much more together. It’s not so impossible.”

As quickly as the dancing and standing came, it was over. The crowd took their seats again, and the song stripped back to Sufjan’s voice and a guitar, creating for an enthralling end to the main set and concluding one of the most epic songs I have ever seen live.

Everyone wasted no time in jumping to their feet again, giving Sufjan a unanimous standing ovation that was thoroughly deserved as he departed the stage. He waited for quite a while for the encore break, and both my hands and throat were getting a bit sore by the time he re-arrived to the sounds of woooing and loud clapping.

He was wearing a green t-shirt instead of his fluro gear, and this was an apt representation of what was to come. While the main set had been unquestionably phenomenal, it had only featured songs from ‘All Delighted People’ and ‘The Age Of Adz’, and I was still waiting on some tracks from one of my favourite ever records, ‘Illinois’. They were about to come.

Sufjan sat down at a piano, and proceeded to play Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois. It was sublime. Somehow his voice was suddenly even more commanding and more beautiful, surely that wasn’t possible?

But then he took to an acoustic guitar and began John Wayne Gacy, Jr., the most beautiful song ever written about a serial killer. It is one of my favourite Sufjan songs, and I was so thrilled that he was playing it live. There was a silent, revered hush in the Opera House, and it really did seem as if everyone was in awe of what they were witnessing. The atmosphere was at once silent and absolutely electric. It was as if every single person was on a knife’s edge, bottling up their appreciation and emotion until the end of the song, when it erupting in some of the most fierce and enthusiastic cheering I have ever heard at a show.

“And on my best behaviour, I am really just like him.”

Sufjan ushered his full band back onto the stage, including Owen Pallett this time. He said farewell to the crowd, once again as humble and as genuine as you could possibly imagine. “I know this show hasn’t been what a lot of you were expecting. But I hope that if you’ve stayed this long, I’ve given you a few pop songs”.

And then it was time.

Chicago, my favourite ever song, was otherworldly. It defied words; it transcended everything around it and nothing else mattered in the slightest. I almost couldn’t bring myself to look at the stage, instead sitting with my head bowed slightly, nodding along softly. It was like the stage was the sun, and I couldn’t look directly at the light emanating from it.

I don’t know how else to describe it. Chicago was perfection, distilled to musical form. I can go to gigs for the rest of my life, but I will never hear a song as special or as beautiful as this. It was simply majestic, overwhelmingly pure.

It was the second time I’ve ever teared up slightly at a gig, so all semblance of masculinity is certainly gone, but I don’t really care. It was a magical moment, I and will never, never forget it.

“All things go, all things go.”

So it was that, with another rousing standing ovation, the show was over. I was completely shell-shocked, so much so that I didn’t even chase after Matt Berninger when my mate and I noticed him standing outside after the show. I honestly didn’t even want to leave the Opera House, I just wanted to stay and relive the concert forever.

This is usually the part of the review where I sum up the gig, but it was a show that defied being summarised. Sure I can complain about the setlist (I’m not a fan of such an overwhelming focus on his new material), but ultimately it feels sacrilegious to say anything negative whatsoever about an experience such as this. Even with this blubbering review I don’t think I have done the show justice.

If I am brutally honset with myself, I would have preferred seeing Sufjan three years ago when he was last in Australia, but it is pointless to think about such things. The fact is that this show was pretty much perfect.

The setting of the Opera House was the best possible venue for Sufjan Stevens, and suited the grandeur of his music perfect. This show was impossibly beautiful.

It was, in every sense of the world, majestic.

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10 Responses to “Gig Review: Sufjan Stevens @ The Sydney Opera House, 28th January”

  1. I think the review was quite restrained!

    Saw the show at The Tivoli in Brisbane and not even that stinker of a venue could ruin the delight.

    It is impossible to convey to people who weren’t there just how epic that 25 minutes was. Pure. Unadulterated. Joy.

    I caught myself just grinning foolishly at the majesty and the awesomeness and the pure delight.

    Thanks for the review and allowing me to relive it a little, just one more time.

    • Haha thanks, I never imagined that ‘restrained’ would be a word people would use to describe the review! Looking forward to seeing him again tonight.

  2. fantastic review. so cut i missed out on these tickets since i was on schoolies.

  3. Reading that has actually brought tears of joy to my eyes remembering how amazing it was. I can’t believe both shows are over… Very well written I don’t think I could ever put such an experience into words so eloquently!

  4. Absolutely brilliant show. One of the best I have ever seen.

  5. This review almost perfectly sums up my feelings towards this show, however I was in the centre of the second row (OMG I COULD SEE HIM SWEATING.)

    Also, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting him after the show (by which I mean we hovered around stage door until eventually he had to leave) and he is one of the most mesmerising and personable people I have ever encountered. So add “lovely person” to your list of Sufjan love!

  6. Wow, im going to the Sufjan Stevens concert may 31st, im so excited, but i feel bad that you guys had to sit down, i hate sit down concerts, and even with an artist like Sufjan Stevens and this album, its a “stander upper” concert for me, good thing our show will be standing up! that review was awesome, thanks :)

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  1. Tweets that mention Gig Review: Sufjan Stevens @ The Sydney Opera House, 28th January « And Pluck Your Strings -- Topsy.com - January 31, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Deep Dish Dreams, Lachy. Lachy said: Gig review of Sufjan Stevens and @owenpallett at the Sydney Opera House on Friday night. http://wp.me/pGd3A-Ai […]

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