Wednesday, February 2, 2011

This week I have been mostly watching: Sufjan Stevens at the Sydney Opera House

‘It’s gonna take some beating to top that’. Those were my words as Sufjan Stevens support act Owen Pallett left the stage at the Sydney opera house on Friday night.
Little did I realise the musical, visual and emotional extravaganza that was in store for me when that comment babbled from my ill educated cake hole.
Sufjan was playing 2 dates at the Opera House as part of the Sydney festival and I was lucky enough to be going on the second night. I had taken a look at the previous nights setlist and must admit I was feeling slightly disappointed that it drew almost solely from the ‘All Delighted People’ EP and the album ‘Age of Adz’. I liked the new album (after all it did win the coveted 3rd place rosette in my personal album of the year list) but it was ‘Seven Swans’, ‘Michigan’ and ‘Come on feel the Illinoise’ that had made Sufjan one of my all-time favourite performers.  After this night and this performance though, my opinion has been totally turned on its head.
Sufjan entered the arena wearing a neon pink and green jumpsuit and opened with the epic ‘All Delighted People’. The lights were solely on him during the first verse but the band were slowly revealed as the song progressed, showing they were dressed in similar bizarre dayglo pink, green and silver psychedelic outfits.
When the song peaks the cacophonous mix of trumpets, guitar and keyboards coupled with the onslaught of twin drum kits sounds immense, and you realise that the Opera house is the perfect venue for this intense, intricately arranged music.
The stuttering beats and squiggles of ‘Too Much’, arrive next and it is here we see the first real glimpse of the 2 choreographed backing singers and Sufjan himself pulling out some distinctly odd but strangely captivating and hypnotic dance moves.
What is surprising is how quickly I forgot the old folk singer songwriter styling’s of Sufjan and embraced this new electrically charged, larger than life, kaleidoscopic, all singing, all dancing Sufjan, haphazardly piloting this rainbow coloured starship of a show into unknown space.
The ‘Age of Adz’ sounded incredible and I was almost blubbing in my seat when, after being pummelled by the exhilarating full band assault, the song reached its painfully honest final verse which Sufjan sings unaccompanied on the guitar.
It may have been too overwhelming to take too many of these giant, emotionally wrought songs in a row and Sufjan wisely changes the pace with a spine tingling version of ‘The Owl and the Tanager’ and the more folk tinged ‘Heirloom’ and ‘Futile Devices’ (which features some tasty flute played by what appears to be Jesus in a shiny silver trench coat)
‘Vesuvius’ and ‘Get Real, Get Right’ are tremendous and sound far more robust and fully realised live than on record. It’s interesting that Sufjan gives a monologue halfway through the show on Royal Robertson, the outsider artist and self proclaimed preacher who was a massive inspiration for him when making the ‘Age of Adz’ album, as this helps put into context, not only the songs, but the outfits and visuals(which feature spaceships and cartoon characters created by Royal).
The final song is the ridiculously ambitious 25 minute ‘Impossible Soul’ which I approached with some slight trepidation. The backing singers, now clad in hot pink feather boas after a costume change, take centre stage for the opening section of the song which threatens to collapse under its own weight, until the lights dim and a giant diamond is lowered onto the stage.
Sufjan appears wearing a large shimmering fibre optic head dress with his voice heavily treated with vocal effects.
Then it happens, the moment the whole night has been building up to, during the joyous synth pop section of the song Sufjan sings ‘Do you wanna dance?’ and the Opera house answers in the affirmative.
As brightly coloured balloons tumble down from above everyone gets to their feet and starts to dance. A small child stumbles out into the aisle between the seats in front of me with a grin plastered across his face, someone shouts ‘Thank you’ at the top their voice. Our preacher for the night Sufjan is wearing a tutu and is prancing manically across the stage.
Unbelievable scenes. Simply Unbelievable. I’d never seen anything quite like it.
After this massive high the song comes down perfectly on the Sufjan trademark sound of hushed vocals and intricate fingerpicking of old.
The gig really should have ended here, but Sufjan returned for a triumvirate of classics which actually came across as a bit of an anticlimax. The well loved old songs now felt old fashioned and one dimensional after what had gone before.
Before he leaves the stage for the final time Sufjan actually apologies to the crowd that he mainly played only new material and that it may have appeared bombastic and overblown. Those criticisms could easily be levelled at him, but after this stupendous night of awesome entertainment and risk taking it would take a cold fish indeed not to take something from one of the most vital performers this generation has to offer.
Please enjoy some badly filmed footage of the show which doesn't do it justice at all.

Did you go to the gig? Did someone sitting behind you emit a potent gust of rectal gas? That quite possibly was me. Please let me know your thoughts.

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