Sufjan Stevens: Concert Review
Brian Boylen | Thursday, August 25, 2016
The sun was fading and a double rainbow laid hung over the stage. It was as if the weather itself was foretelling the childlike joy and excitement I was about to experience. The venue was the Red Rocks Amphitheatre located just outside of Denver and the artist was Sufjan Stevens, a musician lauded for his use of varying musical styles from album to album. Yet just as diverse as his sound was the crowd. A wide range of people spanning from young hipsters to middle aged moms and elderly men were all in attendance. This microcosm of distinct American personalities was united by one thing alone, desire to see the ever-interesting Sufjan Stevens.
The craziness of the impending concert was made immediately apparent by Sufjan’s choice of attire. He mounted the stage wearing a brightly colored jacket adorned with folded white wings on the back. Not surprisingly, Sufjan immediately began to play “Seven Swans,” an old acoustic indie-folk favorite among many fans. However, the live version turned out to be a completely different animal from the studio version. Utilizing his backing band in full force, “Seven Swans” sounded magnificent and grand, and was led by booming percussion. As the song climaxed, Sufjan’s wings extended, giving him an angelic appearance as he was bathed in a white light.
The concert was not just an auditory experience but a visual one as well. Every song was accompanied by different lighting arrangements and images on the giant screen behind the stage, changing just as often as Sufjan’s flamboyant outfits. For instance, on the song “Fourth of July” fireworks slowly exploded in the background as a neon-clad Sufjan sang slowly into the microphone. The very atmosphere seemed to be part of the show, with the Denver skyline slowly fading into a dark black, pierced only by the occasional flash of lightning in the distance.
As was hinted by Sufjan’s electric performance of “Seven Swans,” the concert was not a calm nor low energy show. This was a stark contrast to his last tour in which he primarily played songs from the somber album he had just released, 2015’s “Carrie and Lowell.” This tour fittingly boasted more of a festival-appropriate vibe; Sufjan had just performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival a few days prior. He played songs from every stage in his career but drew most heavily from his electronic and vibrant record, “The Age of Adz,” released back in 2010. Songs such as “Vesuvius” and “Too Much” made for incredibly fun performances and were certainly complemented by the outrageous costumes and psychedelic visuals on the big screen. Even gloomier songs off of “Carrie and Lowell” were stimulating, largely due to the full sound that was brought by the bands drums and bass. This is not to say that the somber essence of the sadder songs was lost so much as balanced with more high energy selections.
My favorite part of the show was when Sufjan performed his 25 minute epic “Impossible Soul” in the grandiose fashion that such a beast of a song requires. As the song shifted from segment to segment so did Sufjan’s utterly fascinating wardrobe. He began the song in the neon garb he had been wearing all show before switching into a giant, metallic costume. Perhaps this was a reference to the Tin Man from the “Wizard of Oz,” whose lack of heart may be how Sufjan feels, as is hinted by the line “With a broken heart that you stabbed for an hour.” Or, perhaps, it was just another manifestation of Sufjan’s quirky sense of humor. As the song moved along into a more upbeat segment, the audience was graced by another switch in costumes, this time a bright and fun outfit covered in all colors of balloons. Soon after the wardrobe change, several inflatable, dancing tube people popped up on the back of the stage to the laughter of many in the audience.
After he was done performing, Sufjan walked off stage to the thunderous applause of the crowd. The clapping persisted for quite a few minutes before Sufjan returned to the stage, this time wearing normal clothes – no neon to be found. He played some of his more popular quiet songs during the encore, such as “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “To Be Alone With You.” Unlike during the concert proper, he stayed true to how the songs sound on record and opted not to liven them up with the band. Ending on these subdued and relaxing songs provided a cathartic end to the show, this time for good.