LIVE REVIEW: Sufjan Stevens 19/05/2011

25 05 2011

The Apollo, Manchester

Review by Jack Carolan 

Somewhere near the beginning of Sufjan Stevens’ awesome spectacle of a performance he introduces himself as the entertainment for the night and promises a journey through space: the space of the exterior; the cosmos, and the space of the interior; the body, in the spaceship Apollo.  This statement may cause the more sceptical in the audience to think, “catch a grip”, but by the end of the mammoth two and a half hour spectacle that he and his nine piece band unleashed on an unsuspecting crowd, every seated cynic in the balcony was not only silenced but on their feet. 

The lights go down and the nine piece band emerge from smoke, wearing body suits with luminous strips making them look like the cast of Tron.  The opener works along the Schubert/Pixies lines of quiet/loud, starting off all moody before releasing the full force of the band.  The second song is ‘a dance tune in 7/8’, with drum programming and robotic dancing, a million miles off the kind of sounds on Stevens’ first album.  When it came out I loved its twee folky acoustic guitar-y, banjo-y paired down-ness with the hint of occasional orchestral flourishes.  I filed it in my head along with Iron and Wine and Devendra Banhart and whatever else on the computer that has acoustic guitars (I’m sort of a philistine like that) and didn’t really give the second album a proper listen. 

So the scope of Stevens’ music is a bit of a revelation.  Then another curve ball: a solo cover of REM’s ‘The One I Love’, the only cover of the night.  Throughout, Stevens sporadically ‘clears the air’ with solo folk songs.  One of these is a song off his first record about his sister, where he gets the audience to join in on the chorus and manages to get nearly the whole auditorium singing along.  There’s something of the pomp and abandon of a U2 stadium gig without it being cheesey.  There are big moments and quiet, beautiful moments, like a bit where a weirdy beardy, culty looking band member called Zardoc accompanies Stevens with a solo on a miniature Casio SK1 keyboard.

Stevens understands the importance of connecting with his audience, and he delivers on the drama, and the humour.  He knows what he’s there for and he knows what he’s doing.   He seems one step removed and self-aware/ self-deprecating enough to pull off all the hippy, sci-fi mystic stuff that he’s laying on heavily tonight.  During one very long interlude he gives a talk on the life of a paranoid schizophrenic artist called Royal Robertson who was deeply religious but also believed in UFOs and all sorts of other crazy stuff.  Culty images and beasts from other planets feature heavily in what is essentially a really lavish PowerPoint presentation.  About ten minutes in I was thinking to myself “how is he getting away with this?”  The entire audience sat respectfully, listening to this for ten minutes!  No music, just a presentation on an obscure outsider artist. 

During another interlude he explains, humorously enough, how his hippy parents had given him and his siblings a book called Star People which explained how some people are actually aliens (or Star People).  Cosmic imagery and hippy psychobabble is a constant throughout and I’m always wondering how much, if any, he takes seriously.  Regardless, it makes a good show.  Not only is this gig a big live spectacle complete with video from his own in-house video artist, a massive light show, costumes, confetti, balloons, but at two and a half hours, Stevens gives the audience their money’s worth and can afford to take his time.

Songs meander into huge twenty minute movements with slow folk interludes punctuated with dance work-outs where the two backing singers, one of the highlights, really give it some with the choreography.  They’re not all perfect and Janet Jackson, Bananarama- unpolished and nonchalant but really sexy, like your cool older sister’s mate, drunk at a party, showing off some dance routines that she’s been secretly working on.  They’re a bit sloppy in the best possible way- totally into it, at one point climbing onto the speaker towers at either side of the stage before one of them rushes into the audience. 

 He tries to describe it about half way through: “psychedelic pop, space rock, fraggle rock…”, always a bit of humour to assure us that he’s not taking himself too seriously, keeping us onside.  Because if I thought that he was serious about some of the things he comes out with and the weird American cult-like trappings of the performance, I would be truly creeped out. 

At times there are religious references in the music that combined with the melodies and instrumentation wouldn’t make the songs seem out of place as part of a church service.  When he occasionally sings about “The Lord” and “him taking our place”, I find myself recoiling just very slightly, but go with it, because it’s not too upfront and preachy.  A lot of music legends have been deeply religious and brought it into the music.  Many of the early house producers were, and are tee-total, devout Christians drawing on a gospel tradition.  And that’s fine, but there’s something about the religious dimension in Stevens’ music, combined with how the band is presented as a sort of religious cult with images of UFOs, the eye in the pyramid symbol, the constant references to him and his band mates being “star children”, mixed with Christian stuff in the lyrics that makes me a bit uneasy in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. 

That said, the Sufjan Stevens show is big and impressive, the kind of show that you could see working brilliantly at night time at a festival. Even without all the pomp, flashing images, light show, confetti, dancers, and balloons, the power of the music alone is nearly enough to make you feel like you have been taken on a journey through the cosmos in the spaceship Apollo, and want to sell all your worldly possessions and join the cult of the Star People.  Nearly.  Even if he is a bona fide religious nut, for me, the gig tonight delivered, in every department, more than any other in recent memory.

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