An emotional evening with Sufjan Stevens

Holly witnessed the ever enigmatic artist at his Hamer Hall show in melbourne. it was a profound experience.

Sufjan Stevens is a complex and intense musician. While the person who addresses the crowd seems outwardly positive, albeit in a self-deprecating way, knowing that his music revolves predominately around the theme of death casts a certain archetype in the heads of many. Prior to the show I was claiming that seeing Stevens in concert would be an inevitably emotional experience. The tears started right after the opener ‘Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)’ and remained for the majority of the performance.

At times agonisingly honest, Stevens’ lyrics have always been intensely personal. Often with the aid of biblical references, Stevens has long been renowned for his remarkable insight into life and mortality, along with an aptitude for musical experimentation. There is no denying that his latest album Carrie and Lowell is one of the most emotionally harrowing you’ll listen to. It’s marked by the significant loss of Stevens’ estranged mother Carrie. Through his lyrics Stevens comes to terms with the abandonment he felt throughout his life, along with the difficult process of grieving the life of someone who was never really there. During his shows Stevens makes the album come to life with completely new arrangements for each song, filling in the sparseness that characterises the album. Accompanied by his multi-talented band Stevens transforms the songs from their bare and mostly acoustic recorded form to live spectacles.

Stevens’ delicate voice sounded crystal clear over Hamer Hall’s incredible PA system. It marked me as interesting that someone who sings in such a soft, gentle way would be frequently stepping away from the mic and singing at a volume that was audible, yet not quite the loudness you’d expect at a live show. It was beautiful and highlighted the power of the human voice. Almost each song had a moment where Stevens’, along with his talented back up singer Dawn Landes, vocalised in harmony. It truly felt like you were observing an intimate moment. Stevens has incredible chemistry with his fellow band mates but in particular Landes. During the second set Stevens glanced at Landes often and they often shared a look, sometimes a smile.

The first set consisted almost entirely of tracks from Carrie and Lowell, with ‘Death with Dignity’ introducing the chapel like backdrop of home footage. Songs like ‘The Only Thing’ and ‘Fourth of July’ hit a nerve especially, with the latter reading as a back and forth conversation between Stevens and his mother.

In between sets Stevens and his band made wonderful, chaotic noise which lasted for what felt like 10 minutes. Lights flashed, time stopped and I thought about how all of this was contained within the one venue, yet the experience felt completely transcendental and beyond the walls of Hamer Hall. Leaving the stage to a standing ovation, Stevens and his band returned for the second set, huddled around a single microphone to perform some of his earlier and better known tracks.

Stevens addressed the crowd candidly, reminiscing about the time he saw Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Gardens who performed his seminal album ‘Songs In The Key of Life’. Stevens poked fun at the fact that his songs are played “in the key of death” and acknowledging that even the ‘lighter’ second set consisted of fairly morose songs. “This is my murder ballad” he announced before playing ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’, a haunting tale about the serial killer of the same name. Later on when introducing the band, Stevens playfully added “I’m Stevie Wonder”, showing that there’s a light-hearted side to a man many would cite as being depressing.

A moment of pure brilliance occurred when Stevens forget the lyrics to ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’. “The sequence of events are important!” he exclaimed, laughing along with the audience at his forgetfulness. So often you see musicians express horror over getting something wrong but Stevens appeared as composed as ever. “This song is pretty sexy” he notes after the line “In the living room when you kissed my neck and I almost touched your blouse”.

Prior to set closer ‘Chicago’ Stevens’ recounted the first time he was faced with death upon the passing of Opie, a foster child who attended his school. Stevens relayed how he and his fellow students were told while someone may not be physically present they continue to survive inside us. Stevens elaborated that this was how he feels about his mother’s passing. “Everything you do is in honour of their life” he mused before thanking the crowd for their attendance. It’s a poignant note to end on and one that serves as a reminder of how important it is to cherish life. Sufjan Stevens is a truly remarkable songwriter and performer and to see his music live was a true privilege and an experience I’ll never forget.

Header photo by Bez Worcou.

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