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The Helix, Dublin
When an artist puts out a great record, the tracks can sometimes falter when they make the dodgy transition to a live setting. Certain musicians can be found guilty of failing to understand that a live performance of even their best song should be considered a kind of “adaptation” of that song (because as we know, chances are it’ll never sound just as we imagined it would). This holds more truth for some genres and styles than it does for others, especially when said songs are being performed in larger venues. It is thankful then, that Sufjan Stevens is not one of these artists.
The problem facing our favourite folk hero when he walked out, unassumingly, on to the stage of a packed Helix theatre was not in the quality of his song writing. His latest release, Carrie & Lowell, stripped back by his standards, was a heartbreakingly sad and exquisite cataloguing of a son’s complicated grief in the wake of his mother’s untimely passing. The issue he faced was rather how to ensure that these intimate, deeply personal yet smaller scale songs would resonate with those in the back and balcony seats of a crowd nearing 2,000. Any worries about the sound of these more understated, remorseful tunes not carrying past the front row are soon quashed by the heavenly opening bars of ‘Redford (For Yia Yia and Papou)’. The audio problems which had plagued Modest Mouse in this same venue were nowhere to be heard here.
One thing that is immediately obvious is that Stevens fully understands that the cuts from his most recent output are being newly contextualised in this environment. He is fully aware that this is not the dinky corner of a smoke-riddled Greenwich Village coffee shop but rather a sold out auditorium in Dublin’s north side. The setup and presence of a five-piece band both speak volumes to this effect. As the roguishly reticent Stevens plays, he is surrounded by a mind-boggling assortment of keyboards, guitars (I count five), dazzling lights, laptops, bearded lads and a whole host of technological gizmos and wires heading off who knows where. Behind him, there hang from the scaffolding five, long diamond-shaped panels which provide a dizzying display of evocative imagery throughout. His multi-talented bandmates appear to only be able to play about half the instruments as their leader, which is to say, a lot, considering Stevens’ number is reportedly at 14.
All of this is certainly a far cry from the marked isolation and crippling self-loathing that permeates Carrie & Lowell but Stevens’ primary concern is to put on a show, and that’s exactly what he does. After the opener, the ensemble delve in to a string of Carrie & Lowell tracks and by the conclusion of the main set, they’ll have covered every song on the album. Some might have felt the experience cheapened by the lack of some old favourites but with an LP this untouchable, it really is hard to complain too much. The production on these live versions is noticeably bigger on the majority of these songs. Along with an increased emphasis on the electronic side of things, a key difference is found via the extensive use of drums (virtually non-existent on the record).
In these surroundings, the tracks transcend their humble origins (some were originally recorded on an IPhone) and become something much grander, more extroverted and dare I say…universal. For Carrie & Lowell‘s title track, the audience is treated to gleeful wall of noise as every piece of equipment on stage (shakers, synths, spoons, you name it) feel like they are going full pelt in the song’s uplifting and majestic second half. ‘All of Me Wants All of You’, a sorrowful lament for a one sided relationship, is given a drum and bass beat behind it which, alongside Stevens’ off-kilter delivery, transports the song to pseudo hip hop territory. It just works.
For the most part, the images on the background panels portray home video footage of formative years of Sufjan and other members of the Stevens clan. He is shown smiling over birthday cakes, running carefree in the garden or posing for family photos. The grief-stricken words he sings paint a different, more complex picture, but seeing the doe-eyed, truly gorgeous little boy he was just reminds us that this was all a normal childhood to him at the time. Even with this entire spectacle on display, he can still impress with nothing but himself and a guitar. With a solo performance of ‘Eugene’, arguably the record’s lowest point, Stevens stands solemnly at the front of the stage. He seems to have to some difficulty getting through the lines, but he manages it. In the words we hear the singer, “drunk and afraid” at the depths of his depression. “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?”, he asks of the deceased. Upon the conclusion, we can see Stevens quickly wiping tears from his face before the spotlight goes. This guy ain’t faking it.
The light display itself is never too obtrusive unless, of course, Stevens wants it to be. During the outro of ‘Fourth of July’, the stage goes dark as the lights stop illuminating the band and instead erratically shift focus onto the audience while we hear the fatalistic line “We’re all gonna die” gently sung on repeat. It’s a darkly comic, morbid and sobering moment. The performance of set closer ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’ is the kind of experience that everyone should go through at least once in their lives. The final conclusion to Carrie & Lowell lasts about 30 seconds on record but here it stretched to about 10 minutes to become an all-out assault on the senses. All we hear is an indecipherable cacophony with Stevens (very) slowly but surely heightening the pitch as – out of nowhere – spinning disco balls (yes, disco balls) deflect light in all directions around the theatre .The only way I can describe is as if you were watching that nightmarish tunnel scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, as directed by one Sufjan Stevens.
It’s only in the extended encore does the man begin to interact with the crowd and show them that he’s just as disgustingly humble as he is talented. After musing on the natural beauty of the Irish landscape, Stevens affably segues into playing his only serial killer song ‘John Wayne Gacy Jr’ by telling us genially “Im gonna play a murder ballad now”. Past standouts like ‘Heirloom’ and a sumptuous acoustic version of ‘Chicago’ hit, reminding everyone that much of his back catalogue is as stellar as his work on Carrie & Lowell. Stevens doesn’t go into too much depth about himself because he knows his emotive song writing will do the talking for him. Even if he’s a man of few words, he also happens to be one who makes some great songs.