sat 13/07/2024

Sufjan Stevens, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Sufjan Stevens, Royal Festival Hall

Sufjan Stevens, Royal Festival Hall

An unforgettable night with the prodigiously talented Michigan oddball

Sufjan Stevens: Love, death and the apocalypseAll images © I-boy

“Hi, I’m Sufjan Stevens,” said Sufjan Stevens as his show, the first of two nights at the Festival Hall, got under way. “I’m your entertainment for the evening. I’ll be singing a lot of songs about love and death and the apocalypse. But it should be a lot of fun." This was quite an understatement. Fun?

It was one of the best nights of music I’ve ever witnessed, a torrent of captivating songs and visuals from the Michigan oddball who combines a prodigious musical talent with a deliriously unfettered imagination.

Take the mad frenzy of a Flaming Lipsgig, the whole mothership shtick of George Clinton, plus the beardy weirdness of Roy Wood’s Wizzard, add more than two hours of music that was at times exquisitely delicate and at times darkly menacing, and you have an unforgettable night.

To begin at the beginning: with a gauze screen between the stage and the audience, Stevens, on banjo, and his 10-strong band (two drummers: fantastic!) delivered a gently unfolding “Seven Swans”, with Stevens, as well as two dancer-singers at the back of the stage, wearing wings, which somehow made them look sad, and everyone on stage wearing fluorescently patterned clothing, which somehow made them look like deep-sea creatures. Projected patterns skittered across the gauze, while Stevens, his voice sweet and pure and clear, sang about seeing a sign in the sky.

Slowly the gauze was raised and the scene became vivid and real, the fluorescence glowier. From here the night grew and it grew until it ended with the audience on their feet as Stevens, by now dressed like a man who had raided the dressing-up box of a troupe of surrealist interplanetary clowns, danced and bounced and sang the irrepressible refrain from “Impossible Soul”: “Boy, we can do much more together”. Sensational.

5715059039_c085579dfa_bI’d never seen Stevens before and had heard glowing reports of his live shows, but nothing prepared me for this. He makes music that’s really quite complex, multilayered, polyrhythmic - it's difficult, doubtless, to play, and sing, with its tight harmonies. But here he and his band and his singer-dancers handled it with enormous expertise, paying absolute attention to detail – a squirt of squelchy synth here, a shimmer of guitar there. And what a revelation the two trombonists were, bringing this neglected instrument to the fore in all its lustrous parpy vigour.

Stevens’s recent album, The Age of Adz, provided much of the material; this could have been a miscalculation, as it’s a tricky collection of often dark and doomy songs in a largely electronic idiom, a big shift from his previously folkie-orchestral-pop-rock stuff. But in one of Stevens’s compelling monologues (what a pleasure to hear a musician say more than “How ya doing, [insert city here]?”), he explained how the album emerged from long improvisational sessions and that tonight he was hoping to present it for us in three dimensions. As the show progressed, I realised what he meant: music that sounds at times claustrophobic on CD was unleashed, liberated in a live setting; it became real.

Watch the video for "Too Much"

He also spoke at length about a formative influence on The Age of Adz, a Louisiana artist and paranoid schizophrenic (now dead) by the name of Prophet Royal Robertson, whose eccentric theology featured numerology, spaceships, the Bible, sex and strangeness in roughly equal measure, and whose visionary comic-book artwork provided some of the visuals for the show. He and Stevens are a good fit; after all, as Stevens explained, he himself was told by his restless fad-seeking hippie parents that he was a “starchild”, while naked family yoga sessions were a regular feature of his upbringing. All of which helps to explain why Stevens’s oddness, his geeky innocence, did not come across as remotely self-conscious or calculated or contrived; it’s not something that he does – it’s the way he is.

Anyway, there was darkness and there was delicacy, there was dancing and there were dazzling visuals. And right at the end there was the gloriously, vividly, brilliantly alive “Chicago” from the Illinois album, complete with cascading balloons and fluttering confetti. Surveying the scene after the mayhem had ended, Stevens said, finally, “Sorry about the mess.”

Stevens was by now dressed like a man who had raided the dressing-up box of a troupe of surrealist interplanetary clowns

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Best. Gig. Ever.

Certainly up there in the top ten gigs of a lifetime. Thanks for this great review

I must have been at a different gig. Sujan's inspiration for the music, his talk about Royale, was inspiring but the overall experience felt a bit like My First Stage Show. The "multi-layered" music felt more naive than a clever experiment and exploration, the type of stuff a teenager playing around with a synthesiser would have fun with. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but I felt his music had not grown stronger as result. The visuals were stunning and were, for me, the highlight of the show, and helped to keep me in my seat. I'm not saying I was wholly disappointed as watching and listening was certainly a fascinating experience. The mix of 90's neon, 80's dancing, folk, pop, rock and acid tripping sound produced what I can only describe as some kind of space opera (does anybody remember Buck Rogers?). It was entertaining.

This gig really was a revelation as I hadn't even heard of him before. The guy can do anything and everything with ease and great talent and what he does isn't easy to categorise. His team of musicians, sound engineers and especially the video artist made this a very special spectacle which in the end turned into a dance about party. The latter is not easy at a venue like the Festivall Hall. The guy is definitely a genius.

Glad you shared the joy and wonder of a wonderful gig. Sufjan was on top form last night. He doesnt do "safe" and we reaped the benefit. Truly wonderful writer, vocalist, musician, oddball etc. Life enhancing stuff. Wouldnt like to live in his head though . . .

I'm almost not believing my eyes. This was not, by far, the 'best gig ever'. This was my first time seeing Sufjan Stevens live. Previously, I had listened to his folk music which I had found melodic and soothing i.e extremely enjoyable. Last nights gig left me feeling shell-shocked and somewhat stressed out. The first two songs had me in shoulder shaking giggles. I experienced Sufjan and his backing singers/ dancers to have a lack of conviction for the most part of the performance and I watched on in disbelief. Experimenting with body movement and dance to music is a wonderful thing. It looks great to view if its done with as much confidence and conviction that it needs, the dancing was like watching a bad amateur dramatics production and had me cringing in my seat. The ‘noise’ that was his latest work was repetitive and irritating. Sufjan is a fantastic folksong writer and musician. Whilst it is natural to want to experiment musically and grow as a performer, in my opinion this is not the right direction for him. I think Sufjan could potentially loose some of his fans after his efforts last night. Stick to the folk writing. Royal’s artwork and visuals were the best thing about this performance.

To Elizabeth (and Nick) ... Next time, try checking out what the musician is doing currently *before* buying your tickets to the show. Arriving at The Age of Adz and expecting a "melodic and soothing" folk music concert is more than a bit naive. Musicians evolve, and whilst Sufjan has certainly kept his folk roots, he's experimenting with sound and evolving as an artist. Sad that you seemed to have missed that part and were cringing in your seat instead of dancing in the front. Next time, just stay at home, light some candles and listen to Illinois, Seven Swans and co whist enjoying a bubble bath. Everyone will win, as there were plenty of people I know who would have liked your seat at the show. And that, folks, is my rant of the day. ;-) @iboy

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. There certainly wasn't many people dancing where I was sitting and many of them were leaving. Have a good weekend folks :)

Certainly one of my best gigs ever. Musically flawless and great fun; it could have been very introspective, it’s challenging music, but by the end Sufjan had everyone on their feet and singing along. Looking at the Prophet Royal Robinson pictures that come with ‘Age of Adz’ and it’s not difficult to see that they are a product of a troubled mind; what was stunning was the way they had been incorporated into the light show, cutting edge graphics. Definitely not a show for people looking for a quiet night out. Normally when I go to the Festival Hall I lower the average age of the audience by fifteen years, last night I raised it by fifteen.

Elizabeth, Nick, lighten up you old farts! That was a fantastic display of musical prowess by Sufjan and co. and will go down as my best gig ever, and I'm sure many others will feel the same. If you didn't expect a mad and eclectic show, then you haven't even scratched the surface of what Sufjan is about. And... everyone was dancing. and singing along. It was incredible. Were you at the same gig?

George and Dobby, thanks for your comments. I find it hard to take you seriously when you use the words "prowess" and "evolve" in your comments when describing last night's performance. I love Sufjan's folk music and I love experimental music too (an Indy, rock, classical, punk, grunge, etc). Experimental music should be pushing boundaries though, yet I felt I'd heard this stuff before back in the 80's (when i was very young). There were some funky beats, interesting sounds and thoughtful lyrics, but I felt let down by the attempt to layer sound while repeating a chorus over and over. Perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh on the guy, but the "dancing" and overall impression of the performance felt like a high school am dram show.

Elizabeth - you like Sufjan's folk (putting aside that much of his work is miles beyond folkiness - he described himself as a folk singer, so let's run with it) music, but when he opens with a soaring Seven Swans, you don't like his dancing. Even though he is at great pains to explain why The Age of Adz sounds like it does, you just don't think this direction is the right one (let's not mention that his second album was entirely electronica, and miles less accessible than Adz). I guess you didn't like Chicago because he had a chimp mask on his head at the time, eh? Yes, everyone's entitled to their opinion - you just seem to think that yours should have more bearing on Sufjan than his own. NIck, Sufjan said - almost word for word - that he did what you denounce as 'more naive that a clever experimentation and exploration' - ie that he was like a teenager in a second puberty, making hours of weird improvised noises for the sake of a 5 second sample. No-one said that was necessarily 'clever' - or that music in general has to be clever. Each to their own - I'm with the majority on this page, that it was the best gig I've ever seen. Roll on tonight, when I'm doing it all again.

truly staggering beautiful brutal assualt on the senses, it was a magical night, delicate to harsh but delivered with style and a smile and twinkle in his eye.

Just because Sufjan stated that his work was akin to a teenager going through 2nd puberty doesn't that work "good". I've seen many artist statements over the years that try to justify a poorly developed piece of work. Music certainly doesn't have to be clever either; the "charts" are proof of that. I listened to what he said, I took in his lyrics, I watched the performance and analysed it all, but came away disappointed. Terry, in defence of Elizabeth, I don't believe she once stated that her opinion is the ultimate. That's a bit harsh.

The enormous range of comments above only proves how powerful artists like Sufjan are. They are not afraid to challenge us to within an inch of our convictions and commitment. And while the Industry seems to pigeon-hole and package everything into neats rows on portfolio shelves, artists like him continue to explore, yet can still enrapture several thousand people at RFH. Hats off.

Nick - I'm not sure Sufjan ever stated that what he'd done with the samples etc was 'good' either. He just said it's what he'd done, in the - justifiable - belief that a hall full of people who'd come specifically to hear his music might at least be interested, and that some might even be of the opinion that the end result of those endeavours was good. But yes, you're of course allowed to feel disappointed in the performance if it didn't live up to expectation. I'd still come back to the point that you seem to express disappointment in the Age of Adz as a set of songs, rather than their live interpretation, which I didn't find to be drastically more simplistic than their album equivalents. Personally, as I said, I had a brilliant time. My comments to Elizabeth probably were a bit harsh, so my apologies - though I would point out that I don't think it's unreasonable to read her 'Stick to the folk writing' as being pretty final.

stop replying to them, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and continuing to reply only incites them to post more negativity. I should take my own advice. But seriously. This is a fantastic review of an amazing show. He can do anything he wants, and I truly appreciate that he makes no apologies. Not to disgruntled "folk fans", and not to those of us who loved the show. If you didn't like it, you know better for next time. Stay home.

Wow. Didn't realise this was a "Fan Forum' as it appears to be rather than an open forum for comment and critique. if I'd not gone and experienced the show then I would have never known what it was like. Culture comes in all shapes and sizes, and every one is different. Enjoy the music - I'm happy that you all do! Perhaps in the future when you have a differing opinion from the masses, you'll see things differently. Nick - maybe you and I should stay at home and have a drink or just swerve this artist altogether before we get pulled over by the Hardcore Sufjan Police :))

this gig was so beautiful i honestly thought i might die

Sorry to be contrarian, but I really didn't enjoy the gig. I felt Nick and Elizabeth's comments were fair and justifiable, so jumping down their necks seems silly. I really enjoy his songs, including the new album, but the concert didn't do them justice. Here's why. The Sound: Distinct lack of sonic clarity, with massively overblown midrange instrumentation. Two live drummers made the whole sound convoluted. Too many guitars for an electronic sound. Electronic music with a bass guitar underpinning it always sounds bad - not deep and full enough. Brass section with two trombones not so good in my opinion. Trombones are versatile instruments, being able to play with a full, breathy soft tone, or a pointed, raspy tone. We didn't hear much of the first style, as they were being turned up to eleven most of the night. I became desensitised to the effect that the power of a well timed brass burst can do. Listen to Ravel's Bolero for the full range of timbre. Also, just having trombones without trumpets added to the muddy middle frequency area. The songs: His strongest point has been his songwriting, in my opinion, but this didn't come through. Part of it was the sound (above) but more was the choice of arrangements. A few songs started with his characteristic suspended chords moving in thoughtful, angular, sideways shifts. Then, however, they descended into sonic masturbation with each musician seemingly thinking it was their job to outdo the others. Sophomoric guitar-noise solos, hammered piano cluster chords, skin-breaking drum workouts, endlessly. I never felt that his songs had a dynamic climax, which is very important in electronic music. There has to come a point where you actually want to dance, where the bass and drums take over, but there is enough of the implied harmony to keep the sense that you understand where the progression is. That didn't happen for me. I think Seven Swans worked in the new arrangement, because the songwriting was actually allowed room to breathe. Arcade Fire do the relentless build thing really well, but they definitely create a sense of emotional dynamic range. This felt too pressurised. Not that taking your audience on a difficult trip isn't sometimes great. Wagner's Tristan and Isolde withholds a harmonic settling point to great effect with continued suspensions, but here it didn't seem deliberate. Visuals: Amazing. Truly breathtaking. I've seen, performed in and promoted a lot of electronic concerts and festivals over the years, and whoever was doing his visuals was at least as good as some specialists, such as Hexstatic. Some of the yellow-submarine style animations (the plant growing) looked odd, but as a whole it was all very well done indeed. The mesh screens gave a 3D effect which added some depth to the stage. The jump-cut video replays of him and a few friends dancing looked fantastic. Singers: For a thoughtful young man with a global perspective, I thought the inclusion of the (as he called them) booty dancing backup singers was distasteful and a huge error of judgement. It really degraded the concert for me, having people on stage sexualising his music, which is precisely what that type of dancing does. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a prude, but if I thought he wanted his stage to look like a Snoop Dogg video, I would have stayed at home. That has never been what he is about and it felt totally wrong. I'm a red-blooded, 30 year old male, so if it made me think that I was becoming a feminist, then I don't know what my actual feminist girlfriend would have thought. Sufjan: He is obviously eccentric, which is fine. I don't really care either way. I just love the music. What always helps on stage is if you come away feeling that the musician has let you in to their world, that you know them a bit better than when the concert started. They do this by letting their guard down. Sufjan felt like he was trying really hard to impress us with his ideas and vocabulary (what is solitism, anyone?) and that pushed me away. I was waiting with folded arms for the next song to start each time he started talking. I know lots of you will now hate me and want to nailbomb the school I teach in, but please be measured. His dancing is a bit erratic, but far better than his dancers'. Plus, if he wants to dance, if it helps his performance, he should dance all the time. I think it's worthwhile going further into the electronic world, because he could push the envelope a bit. Last night's concert didn't make the album sound better for me. If you look at a band like Hot Chip, they write great songs (listen to boy from school for great songcraft), and then make them sound so much better live than on CD without seeming so pretentious or contrived. Radiohead's Kid A was a milestone for electronic music precisely because of the strong songwriting. I will keep buying his music and going to his concerts, but I'm hoping they aren't like that again. Cue deluge of obsessive fan hate replies.

Poor Chris obviously had crappy seats ... or wears a hearing aid ... and obviously loves the sound of his own voice.

David, you're right. I was being so stupid. Thanks for enlightening me with your thoughtful reply.

Excellent review! This was up there besides Kraftwerk, David Sylvian and David Byrne as one of the very best "rock/pop" concerts I've ever seen at the RFH and I thought you encapsulated the whole experience extremely well!

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