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Gig Review: Sufjan Stevens @ The State Theatre, 31st January

“Hello, my name is Sufjan Stevens and I will be your entertainment for the night.”

On Monday night of all times, Sufjan Stevens played another utterly enthralling and enchanting headline show in Australia. I had previously traveled up to Sydney to see one of his shows at the Opera House, however this was strangely his only show in Melbourne of the tour. This time I was seated front and center in the second row, which created for a starkly different experience when compared to my balcony seats at the Opera House.

So now that the context is out of the way, I can safely say that I enjoyed this show just as much as the Opera House show, and that it was yet another simply magical and flawless set that left the entire crowd in awe of what we had witnessed and in little doubt that we had just seen one of the best musicians in the world.

It was so amazing and so special that even attempting to review it feels a little like trying to describe the indescribable. But here goes.

Before Sufjan took to the stage, Tim Hart played a charming and quaint set that completely justified his surprise selection as support act.

Tim Hart is the drummer of the very-hot-right-now Boy And Bear, and I didn’t even know that he played guitar, let alone had a solo career independently of his Sydney band. I, like the rest of a completely full State Theater, was very pleasantly surprised by his music.

Similarly to Owen Pallett at the Opera House, Tim looked slightly overshadowed by the enormous stage set up behind him, isolated as he was at the front of the stage. I can imagine that opening for Sufjan would be such a hard thing to do, due to the grandeur of what is about to come looming large right up until Sufjan’s eventual arrival.

But Tim did a really great job. He played inoffensive and pretty folk songs, but never bordered on being cliched, always throwing in extra special vocal-work or particularly poignant lyrics when his music risked getting even slightly stale. It was great to see the crowd extremely appreciative of his performance as well, with loud and deserved cheering greeting the end of every single track.

His banter as well was spot on. He was extremely gracious and seemed very humble, coming across as completely charming and very, very likable. By the sounds of things he is a real Sufjan fan as well, saying that he had seen a show in Sydney as well as supporting the Brisbane leg of the tour.

The choice of Tim Hart as opening act was a stroke of genius. The relative obscurity of his solo career meant that a lot of people, myself included, went into his set with no real expectations, and we were all treated to half an hour of extremely enjoyable folk music and the quick-witted banter of a musician who seemed like a genuinely kind man.

The few seats that were empty during Tim’s performance quickly filled during the break between sets. The State Theatre as a venue was still extremely impressive, despite paling slightly in comparison to the Opera House. There are many tiers of balconies, making for an awesome sight when looking back from the stalls, and the front row of seats is pretty much right next to the front of the stage (the first few rows were actually optional seats not utilised for every show at the venue), creating for a much more intimate atmosphere than theatres usually do.

The atmosphere in the venue was one of palpable excitement as the arrival of Sufjan loomed closer, in part due to the already incredibly intricate stage setup. Finally, the house music and lights dimmed simultaneously, the crowd broke out in emphatic applause, and Sufjan Stevens and his ten-person band walked calmly onto stage, decked out to varying degrees in glow-suits and other strange (almost martian) costumes. It made for an extraordinarily busy stage, with so much going on at all times that you almost didn’t know where to look.

Once again wasting no time, Sufjan and co. broke into their opening number, one Seven Swans. I was delighted to hear this track given that it had been excluded from his Sydney show, and the live, re-invented version of the track was simply spectacular. It was brought more in line with ‘new-Sufjan’ music, however still featured Sufjan’s banjo as the driving instrument.

At times the song would reach a glorious climax, with the entire band going mental on their respective instrument, creating a very powerful sound, only to fade away again to leave Sufjan’s sublime voice and his banjo. I actually preferred it to the studio version, and find it difficult to imagine any better opening to a gig than this.

Seven Swans however would go on to be the only song from Sufjan’s main set not from his latest two records, and he quickly broke into some heavier numbers from ‘The Age Of Adz’. The double-hit of Too Much and Age Of Adz was once again supremely powerful, and set the tone beautifully for the rest of the night. The backing video montage of hipster Sufjan dancing for Too Much was also awesome.

“If I was a different man, if I had blood in my eyes.”

You simply had to marvel at the sound that Sufjan and his band generated. The fact that they were so clearly in-sync with one another was nothing short of staggering, given both the number of band members and the complexity of the arrangements. I loved the double-drummer setup- for most of the set they drummed in unison, but the times where they separated their drumming from one another, often transferring the driving sound from one side of the stage to another, were particularly impressive.

It was immediately obvious that being seated at the front was going to make for a completely different experience. On the balcony for the Opera House show it was difficult to make out individual band members and their instruments, whereas at this show I could see all the intricities of the band, including extensive instrument swapping. In short, instead of simply letting the sound wash over me as a whole, I witnessed the parts the made up that whole. Neither experience was better or worse than the other, they were just very different.

The State Theatre probably had better stage effects than the Opera House as well, thanks in no small part to a see-through screen that was occasionally lowered in front of the stage, creating a very surreal effect that perfectly suited some of the music’s denser moments.

Heirloom was utterly sublime, and I must admit that I melted slightly at the sight of Sufjan with an acoustic guitar, only a meter in front of me. It is somehow a very nostalgic song, one filled with yearning and loss. It nods back so wonderfully to some of Sufjan’s older folk music that I fell in love with it the moment I heard it, and hearing it for the second time live was just as magical as the first.

I enjoyed I Walked quite a bit more than I thought I would- it’s unquestionably a great track, but Sufjan’s brilliant dance moves added infinitely to it. The same can be said of All For Myself, which was given a bit of a revamp when played live. This, combined with some very cool video effects, made for a great four minutes that far surpassed the studio version (which is saying something). Despite the musical complexity of ‘The Age Of Adz’, it is almost as if Sufjan wrote it with this exact exuberant stage show in the back of his mind at all times.

Vesuvius was one of the major highlights of the main set for me. Not only is it one of the best tracks from ‘The Age Of Adz’, but it was also accented with stunning visual effects and Sufjan’s awesome dancing. The way the band managed to convey the power of nature- of which the song is written about- was truly breathtaking, and you could almost feel this power emanating from the stage. The song reached a climax when the front curtain lowered and was overlaid with even more visual effects as the band let loose on their instruments, creating a cacophony of sound; a storm of music.

“Follow me now, or follow me down.”

Now seems as good a time as any to mention that the band Sufjan has assembled are as eccentric and perfect as he himself is. They complimented him magnificently, without drawing too much attention away from the man everyone was at the venue to see. The two women who provided constant backup vocals and dancing were in particular brilliant, but so was the ‘Bearded Spaceman’ at the back, the two drummers, and literally everyone else. It was a joy to witness such a tightly-knit and focused band in action.

Get Real Get Right was once again introduced with a short story about sign painted Royal Robertson, however thankfully this time Sufjan shortened the tale slightly. The song itself was as brilliant as ever, especially knowing its context: “For you will not be distracted by the signs”.

Sufjan was as charming as you could possibly expect. He seemed remarkably level-headed and down-to-earth given the subject matter of ‘The Age Of Adz’ and the absurdity of his stage setup, and I particularly loved when he stopped mid-set to wipe fingerprint marks off the stand of his keyboard, saying “That’s all I’ve been thinking about this whole time”. The brief stories he told about his upbringing and young life were fascinating, and he was at all times supremely likable and very charismatic.

He’s Sufjan Stevens, how could he not be?

Throughout the show Sufjan had neglected his setlist slightly, causing some confusion from the band. So it was that instead of playing Enchanting Ghost (as listed on the setlist), he muttered to his band “Let’s do Futile Devices“. And so they did. Although I really do wish that he played Enchanting Ghost, you certainly can’t complain about the quality of its replacement.

The highlight of the track- perhaps surprisingly- was actually its conclusion, where the Bearded Spaceman walked calmly up to Sufjan’s mic and played a brilliant, albeit fleeting, solo on a hand-held miin-keyboard (to use the technical term). It was an absolutely ridiculous sight, but somehow seemed to fit right in to the feel of the show, and he received a rousing applause upon the conclusion of his solo.

And then, with a genuine thank-you to the crowd, Sufjan and his band began the absurdly epic Impossible Soul. It was 25 minutes of pure bliss. I had some idea of what to expect during the duration of the song, but even I wasn’t fully prepared for the insanity of what was to come.

Impossible Soul got off to a slightly restrained start, but after seemingly no time whatsoever it began to build to one of its many climaxes, and Sufjan saw fit to put a whole bunch of seemingly random objects on his head, including but not limited to a blow up kangaroo. The Bearded Spaceman also totally pulled off a giant chicken hat. A diamond cutout descended from the roof, temporarily obscuring the backup singers and dancers and leaving only Sufjan’s silhouette, dancing like a man possessed.

But then the diamond was suddenly illuminated, revealing the true magnificence of Sufjan’s makeshift hat as well as the outline of the two dancers, making for an almost otherworldly sight. The song was just getting started. As the diamond rose and the song changed phases yet again, all of a sudden Sufjan and his female singers were right up at the edge of the stage, literally an arm’s length away from me, and they were gesturing for the crowd to stand up, singing the line “Do you wanna dance?”.

Hell yeah we wanted to dance. It took slightly more encouragement than at Sydney, but soon enough the entire venue was standing and everyone was dancing like crazy, as a thousand brightly coloured balloons cascaded from the roof of the theatre onto the crowd. It was a magical moment- dancing literally half a meter in front of Sufjan as he sung Impossible Soul, danced like a man possessed, and wore an inflatable kangaroo on his head.

“It’s a long life, better pinch yourself. Put your face together, better get it right”.

As the dancey part of the song died down the crowd sat down once again, with those at the front occasionally rising to hit a wayward balloon helpfully back towards the rest of the crowd. By this point however most of the balloons had made a home of the front of the stage, creating an even more bizarre and colourful stage setup. There was a baby in the first row, and he had the time of his life playing around in the balloons nestled between the seats and the stage.

The song stripped back to Sufjan’s voice, ending the main set on a sublime tone. Sufjan and his band said one more thanks to the crowd before departing, leaving behind them a thousand balloons, a unanimous standing ovation, and countless awestruck crowd-members.

Despite the doubtless magnificence of Impossible Soul, I like many people was waiting on some music from ‘Illinois’. Sufjan didn’t keep us waiting quite as long as he did in Sydney, reappearing on stage to the sound of relentless cheering and wooing, wearing an anticlimactically plain t-shirt over the top of his glow suit.

Similarly to Sydney, he seemed almost apologetic of the fact that he had played mostly new material for his main set, and I really got the feeling that he was only doing this encore of older music for the benefit of the crowd. Personally however I’m just glad that we can still see Sufjan live, when it looked like he might give up music entirely early last year. Even though I would have preferred more of his older stuff, his main set was still phenomenal, and playing some of his older music for his encore is a very gracious and understanding thing for him to do.

So it was that Sufjan Stevens sat at a piano and played Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois. It was absolutely perfect, so very magical. It was the type of song you just lose yourself in, and I found myself swaying gently in my seat in time with the music for some strange reason. Looking around I saw that many people were doing the same.

John Wayne Gacy, Jr. was once again divine. I will never tire of hearing Sufjan’s voice and an acoustic guitar. I do kind of wish he opted to play another song from Illinois’ given that I he played the same track in Sydney, but that is certainly nothing to complain about when that song is as beautiful as it is.

“The neighbours, they adored him for his humour and his conversation”.

Sufjan’s voice is beyond perfect; easily the most sublime singing voice that I have ever heard live and will in all likelihood ever hear live. It was enchanting.

But then, as Sufjan welcomed his band back onto stage, it was time for my favourite song of all time, Chicago. Again. I was almost beside myself with anticipation- completely unable to sit still in my seat. Thankfully this wasn’t a problem, because the moment the song started the audience took it upon itself to stand up. I was thrilled at this, given that everyone had remained sitting for the same song in Sydney.

It was so liberating to be able to dance to Chicago, without a care in the world, as the balloons got a second-wind and started floating around the audience again, helped in no small part by Sufjan who seemed to be on a personal mission to ensure that all of them made their way off the stage and into the people. He seemed very pleased that everyone was standing.

Chicago was perfect. It transcended everything else imaginable; it was majestic and graceful and beautiful and sublime and so many other things. It was indescribable.

“I made a lot of mistakes, I made a lot of mistakes.”

I will never forget standing out of my seat, along with thousands of other people, singing along gently to Sufjan Stevens as he stood directly in front of me, as everyone danced in time and nothing else mattered. It just doesn’t come any better than this. It can’t come any better than this.

And there you have it. With one last graceful farewell, Sufjan left the stage, followed by his band who received almost as loud applause as the man himself. I immediately vaulted the one seat in front of me and degraded myself by begging the roadies for a setlist. Although they didn’t hand me one, my moderate height allowed me to catch a balloon they had deliberately thrown out with a setlist stuck on it, so I gained a new most prized possession.

Once again everyone walking out of the venue seemed to have a serious case of Post-Sufjan-Bewilderment. No-one could really believe what they had just witnessed, and everyone seemed to be really struggling to describe it to their mates.

And that’s exactly the problem. I feel almost guilty writing this review, because attempting to describe this show somehow inherently limits the experience; defines an experience that was in reality without definition. I can honestly say that I think only those who have seen Sufjan Stevens live would understand.

It was a beautiful show from a beautiful man who plays beautiful music, and it was so much more. It felt like a constant crescendo, a never-ending journey of both emotion and restraint, entwined so closely that it was impossible to distinguished between the two. It was this constant inner tension in Sufjan’s music that made the night as enthralling as it was, and for all I know this actually didn’t exist when he was only playing his folk music live (although there is no denying that I dearly wish I saw him perform live when he did).

But I’ve spent enough time trying to describe the indescribable. All I can say is that seeing Sufjan live somehow resonated more strongly with me than I could possibly imagine. It was an intensely personal experience, and I don’t think it will ever leave me. I don’t want it to, either. We witnessed a moment of true beauty on Monday night, of pure and complete magic.

Of perfection.

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5 Responses to “Gig Review: Sufjan Stevens @ The State Theatre, 31st January”

  1. I too love Sufjan, and agree with everything you said about the show…to me it was magical. But as for the Post-Sufjan-Bewilderment, you must have been degrading yourself for quite a while. As I walked out all I could here was people complaining about the show…not just a couple but I’d say most people were either complaining about it or at very least complaining how how absurd it had become…and how almost arrogent Sufjan appeared by playing so many songs which we’d thought were made as a joke. It’s like he was taking the piss, and money, of all of us. It is like he’s transformed into something he initially treated as a joke. ANd they did have some valid points: True, the acoustics weren’t as good as I had expected (microphone fuzzing away was much of what I heard during his ‘fascinating’ banter between songs; and people at the front (I was 8th row) were hitting teh balloons forward, not back – kinda selfish; and the bog screen was more an annoyance than anything else. But basically it seemed from where I exited more a Post-Sufjan-Disallusionment. Or maybe just Melbournian cynicism?

    • Suit yourself, I think we must have gone to different shows. Any diehard fan would have known exactly what to expect given he has played pretty much the same setlist for the better part of a year.

  2. I must disagree with James as well.

    I went to both the Sydney show as well as a show in Adelaide. Everyone one I talked to after the shows was so glad to be there. It did not seem to matter if they were old or new fans

  3. What a fantastic and detailed review! Thankyou! I’m pretty sure it was and always will be the best gig of my life.

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  1. Tim Hart – 11pm | The Workers Club - May 10, 2012

    […] copy of ‘Stride By Stride’ here Read a review on Seek Stumble hereRead the review from Sufjan Stevens supports here […]

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