In my recent album review of Sufjan Stevens‘ Carrie & Lowell, I compared psychological theories of grief and bereavement with Stevens artistic way of dealing with the loss of his mother on his latest record. Last night I had the chance to see how he translated his new material onto the stage at his first show of a sold-out two-day residency at Berlins noble Admiralspalast.
The stage of Sufjan and his 5-piece-band was backed by five oblonged projection screens that resembled very much cathedral windows, and after the heavy reverb piano intro of Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou), Sufjan, only lit by a single spot, began the evening with an achingly beautiful solo acoustic rendition of Death With Dignity, while the screens depicted private super-8 home videos from his childhood fooling around. You had to remind yourself that even though it was a piece of privacy exposed in the context of a performance, the scenes it showed were apparently real material, almost like a slide show at a family reunion. From this moment on, the audience was spellbound.
If the record seemed like a diary of grief, the show felt more like an experiment on how to convert these feelings and their energy into something new. Many of the new songs had been reworked and re-arranged. The Only Thing, after starting off as the delicate and reduced acoustic reflection as it is on the record, transformed via a sudden crescendo of tempo, drumbeats and lights directly pointed into the audience into something that almost felt like a resurrection. Fourth Of July became a disconnected sound-collage, wherein the reverb-heavy piano ballad got interrupted various times by synthie blots and splotches, before being pushed by the drum beat into an overwhelming finale.
Whereas the first section exclusively relied on the reworked Carrie & Lowell material, the second half of the main set connected old and new material by a stronger emphasis of choreography and light installation. All Of Me Wants All Of You, one of my favourites both live and on the record, had gotten rid of his acoustic guitar core and now grooved in sync to the pulsating symboles approximating to and withdrawing from each other on the screens around, dressed in wafting synth noises and an elaborated percussion, before turning into a an absolutely stunning and seducing 80s ambient disco monster with Sufjan playing an aggressively roaring synth solo. Mindblowing!
Along to Vesuvius, the light screens turned into a strange combination of vases that were steadily filling up by water drops threateningly dripping down, a boiling vulcano and a rocketship silhouette set to a night starry metropolis skyline. Sufjan performed the song with sort of sign language with his arms and fingers, appearing defenceless and still dignified, that I found extremely touching. I can’t exactly put the finger on the why, but the way he did this sign language somehow illustrated a breakdown of communication and the intention of reconnecting, but also the nagging and threating quality of the expressed doubts and desires of the songs’ lyrics. In the end, Sufjan concluded the song by changing between singing and playing a recorder (which was met with confusion and amusement by the audience) with the repeated line: Why does it have to be so hard? (This is not the only moment that, from a technical point of view, appeared a bit messy: Here and there the coordination between Sufjan and his background vocalist, or his use of his head voice sounded quite a bit off, and sometimes the mostly synthie keyboard foundations of the songs felt a bit thin in order to hold together the ornamentation of the other instruments).
The main set was concluded by a quite demanding and challenging 13 min impro space opera electro experimental journey through Blue Bucket of Gold, that was a final proof that at different moments, this show managed to evoke a diversity of emotions: sadness, melancholy, boredom, tiredness, sensory overload, amazement… Sufjan returned for the encore with his trademark baseball cap, starting to present a selection of older fan favourite songs. The short, beautiful piano solo version of Come On Feel The Illinoise-Opener Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinoise and the sweet banjo picking of For The Widows in Paradise, For The Fatherless in Ypsilanti were greeted with enthusiasm by the audience, who still seemed a bit stunned and shocked after how the main set had ended. Finally, something more familiar (and something easier to digest…).
Generally speaking, it was astonishing how Sufjan succeded to create an intimate vibe for his show; in spite of the scale of the production, the result still felt sincerely personal. Even though a relatively stable setlist sequence, a venue of >3000, an elaborated light show concept, elements of conceptual performance choreography, and an extensive tour that has been going on almost non-stop since the record’s release half a year ago, what he evoked still was more soul than show, more emotion than entertainment.
At the end of the show, he spoke shortly about how these songs are „obsessed with mortality“, and how he feels that the process of sharing them, expressing them, results into turnings these feelings into something new, something else, in an almost cathartic, spiritual way. The people in the audience could only agree, as this effect had been palpable for everyone in the room. So whether read as dealing with mortality, or with noticing the things that grow out of the ashes, and taking them to go on: in any way the final Chicago is right, when it states with its beautiful modest anthem-like sublimity: All things go, all things go.
You can find the setlist below, with some video examples for the new arrangements from earlier dates of this year’s tour. Prepare to be blown away.
Berlin, Admiralspalast (1st night) // Wednesday, September 16th, 2015
Support: Minda Tindle
Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou) (Wiltshire, End Of The Road Festival, 05/09/2015)
Death With Dignity (Wiltshire, End Of The Road Festival, 05/09/2015)
Should Have Known Better (Brighton, Dome, 04/09/2015)
Drawn To The Blood (Edinburgh, Playhouse 30/08/2015)
Eugene (Cleveland, 16/04/2015)
John My Beloved (Manchester, Apollo 31/08/2015)
The Only Thing (Edinburgh, Playhouse 30/08/15)
Fourth Of July (Paris, Grand Rex 08/09/15)
No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross (Houston, Jones Hall f. t. Performing Arts, 11/5/15)
Carrie & Lowell (Edinburgh, Playhouse 30/08/15)
The Owl And The Tangar (Austin, Bass Concert Hall 05/2015)
All Of Me Wants All Of You (Paris, Grand Rex 08/09/15)
Vesuvius (Paris, Grand Rex 08/09/15)
Blue Bucket Of Gold (Columbus, Palace Theatre 17/04/15)
Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois (Dublin, The Helix 29/08/15 )
Heirloom (Dublin, The Helix, 29/08/15)
For The Widows in Paradise, For The Fatherless in Ypsilanti (Edinburgh, Playhouse 30/08/15)
Futile Devices (Manchester, Apollo 31/08/2015)
John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (Edinburgh, Playhouse 30/08/15 )
Chicago (Edinburgh, Playhouse, 30/08/2015)
Find some german reviews off the local press and some photos from the night here:
- Berliner Zeitung: Sufjan Stevens besingt den Tod seiner Mutter im Admiralspalast
- BZ: Folk-Pop für Fortgeschrittene: Berliner Admiralspalast lauscht andächtig Sufjan Stevens
- Rolling Stone Germany: Geisterhafte Melancholie: Sufjan Stevens: Live im Admiralspalast in Berlin