How do you even begin to describe one of the most brilliantly perplexing evenings of your life? Do you give a clinical, song-by-song breakdown of a setlist, or take a more conversational and, ultimately, rambling approach on the night’s events? Maybe it’s best to do both, I suppose.
Beforehand, I had not heard a single note of music from Sufjan’s 2010 album “The Age Of Adz” and had only heard brief second-hand accounts that it was “fairly crazy”, “difficult” and had a certain “Enjoy Your Rabbit”-feel about it (“…Rabbit” being an early Sufjan album – entirely electronic, confusing and exciting all at the same time). Plus there were the unavoidable messages and hyperbolic statements of those who had attended previous shows of the tour plastered across various social networks, almost all using the words “life-affirming”, “amazing”, “a religious experience” and so on. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of the audience seemed to be approaching the event with a sense of intrigue and excitement. This was made immediately evident as the house lights dimmed at 8.30pm and, in a single dim light, the man himself appeared onstage to feverish hysteria that suddenly dropped to complete silence as the hushed, delicate notes of “Seven Swans” began.
Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans
It’s not often you find an audience in a venue the size of the Apollo to be as quiet as this – there is more often than not a large portion of the crowd who are there merely for something to do, rather than being there out of a genuine interest to immerse themselves in a performance.
Then it happened…
Around five minutes into the song, a bank of ultra-violet lights lit up the stage – Illuminating the wild day-glo colours each band member was wearing. And then it hits you… There are SO MANY people onstage… Two drummers, two female singers, three keyboard and pianists, a brass section, a bassist, a guitarist… and in the centre of it all is Sufjan. Then, suddenly the sound builds to a giant crescendo as a pair of giant wings appears from his back, strobe lights begin to flicker uncontrollably and the band collapses into a crashing heap of noise and feedback.
After such a dramatic opening, it seems only apt that the mood is lifted as we are invited to “all dance together in 7/8” as the strangely industrial grooves of “Too Much” kick in. Sufjan, flanked by the two female singers, begin a synchronised dance routine that recalls partly Whigfield’s “Saturday Night” and a demented, day-glo Pans People while the music shifts from throwaway pop to apocalyptic space rock. The space rock theme continues with “The Age Of Adz”, which has since become a personal favourite song, with giant crescendos battling against dazzling sci-fi visuals and bleak, gentle breakdowns with lyrics of immortality and spirituality. The heavyweight lyrical content continues through another set highlight “I Want To Be Well”, which seems solely focussed on the ideas of death, illness and fear as yet more crescendos build and collapse into waves of feedback and madness.
Halfway through the evening, we are told a ten-minute story of Royal Robertson, a paranoid schizophrenic artist who’s work largely inspired much of the material on “The Age Of Adz”, and the tragic way that his life panned out, which proves to be touching, hilarious and captivating in equal measures. It all proves to be a bit much for one member of the crowd, who gives the nights only heckle (something to do with “get on with it” or whatever) – a moment that bonds myself and a stranger in the crowd as we both turn to one another and proclaim “What a dickhead” in unison.
Sufjan Stevens performs ‘Sister’ at The MCR Apollo. Footage courtesy of Rairun1 on You Tube.
Breaking up the heavyweight space-prog and epic tales of illness and loneliness, Sufjan performs a smattering of songs solo on an acoustic guitar – his powerful voice boosted by the Apollo’s cavernous acoustics. Poignant renditions of “Sister” and “Casimir Pulaski Day” instigate mass singalongs, while “Futile Devices” sees an unexpected synth solo from one of the many multi-instrumentalists onstage perfectly augment the guitar and piano melodies and add new dimensions to an already mesmerising song.
However, it’s the 25 minute set-closer “Impossible Soul” which alarms and delights the most. Truly progressive in every sense of the word, the band easily weave from one movement to the next, building from dark brooding pop into droning dissonance, before effortlessly transforming into a power-pop singalong (complete with more synchronised dance moves). At one point, a giant diamond descends onto the stage as Sufjan dons a full-body rocket costume with glowing red lights. It’s like watching Kanye West perform Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready” to a sea of equally delighted and confused faces. Just as it all seems to be getting a little bit too nutty, things swiftly go a bit 80s-Madonna as glitter-cannons explode and choruses the size of planets get the entire venue singing along in unison.
Sufjan Stevens , Chicago
The encore is all about his biggest hit to date, “Chicago” – an amazing anthem in itself, brought to life with more glitter and several hundred balloons which descend from the ceiling – flooding the Apollo as the crowd loses its mind one last time. By this point you realise that it’s 11pm – you’ve been immersed in Sufjan’s eccentric world for two and a half hours and you simply don’t want to leave.
We leave the venue exhausted, smiling and wide-eyed, immediately thinking that all of the hyperbole may just have been accurate this time.
WORDS by Ian Breen
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