Image Courtesy of The Sydney Festival
Sufjan Stevens supported by Owen Pallett
28th January 2011, The Sydney Opera House (Sydney Festival)
Even through the height of his Illinois-based popularity I have never seen Sufjan Stevens live before, so his inclusion in this year’s Sydney Festival lineup immediately shot him to the top of my must-see-gigs-of-2011 list. I’d been a little wary of Steven’s lastest album The Age of Ads with all its bombast and electro flourishes (despite all the press Timber and Steel gave the album I still haven’t fully warmed to it) but was resigned to the fact that the show would probably focus on the new material over his softer, folkier back catalogue. And from his appearance on Jimmy Fallon late last year I also expected fluro, Lots of fluro.
Sufjan Steven’s support act was Owen Pallett, an artist I’d heard so much about but hadn’t managed to listen to until this night. For the uninitiated Pallett is a solo violinist (and sometime keyboardist) who utilises effect and looping pedals (in the same vein as Andrew Bird or Colm Mac Con Iomaire) to create a rich, soaring musical landscape. Owen Pallett absolutely blew me away with his mastery over his chosen instrument and the way he was able to weave melodies and rhythms into each other to create a rich sonic tapestry. What sets Pallett apart from his contemporaries is his liberal use of the effects pedal to create an orchestral sound – drums, bass and keyboard sounds all emanated from Pallett’s violin. Some of the tracks that Owen Pallett played in the middle of the set (forgive me for knowing none of the names) were probably a little too avant-garde for my tastes but his more classical numbers, particularly the piece that finished his set, were just too stunning for words.
The roar of the crowd when Sufjan Stevens and Co. made there way on stage is probably the most deafening I have ever heard at the Sydney Opera House. Sporting an 8 piece backing band that included two drummers (I know, two drummers) and wearing head to toe fluro, Sufjan Stevens said his quick hellos and then launched into the 20 minute long title track from last year’s EP, “All Delighted People”. The audience were enraptured right from the start, promptly raising their hands when to the songs “all delighted people raise your hands” lyric giving the concert hall the feeling of an evangelical church.
I’ve long considered Stevens’ two releases last year, All Delighted People and Age of Ads, as book ends to the different stages in his career. All Delighted People is still very much a folk album despite it orchestral intentions and seems to be Sufjan Stevens’ way of saying “I just need to get this out before starting something new”. Age of Ads starts with “Futile Devices” that is like a memory of All Delighted People before launching into the new electro-Sufjan of “Too Much” (and the rest of the album). Similarly, the concert on Friday, started with “All Delighted People” and then moved straight into “Too Much”, almost as a way of saying “goodbye to old Sufjan and hello to new”.
And new it was. I’m not sure how many people in the audience were expecting gentle, banjo-driven contemplations on middle-America but instead what we were treated to was an absolute sonic barrage. Stevens admitted that he’d spent much of the last two years experimenting and playing with electronic and synthesizer sounds which have adapted to the live setting – the synths and drum machines are still there but now they’re complimented with horns, guitars and even recorders.
Sufjan Steven’s entire set was not just the bombasity of Age of Ads – it was also peppered with quieter folk numbers, the majority from All Delighted People. Stevens had taken a huge risk playing nothing from his popular “50 States” albums but it seemed to pay off – the crowd around me who had been muttering “I hope it’s not all like this” at the beginning while Stevens and his backing singers showed off their fluro-go-go-dancing moves were same crowd who were on their feet applauding at the end of the 2 hour set.
And almost as a thank-you-for-putting-up-with-my-new-sound Sufjan Stevens returned to the stage at the end of the night in a regular t-shirt to perform a trio of classic songs from Illinois – “Concerning The UFO Siting Near Highland, Illinois”, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Chicago”. While these three tracks certainly got the biggest reaction from the crowd they really felt like a sweetened bonus to what was already an amazing night.
After seeing Sufjan Stevens post-Age of Ads I’m not sure I can rightfully claim him as a folk musician anymore. But that said I’m not sure I could have asked for anything more from the man. The show was what every concert should be – a performance. Sufjan Stevens has managed to reinvent himself without losing any of his passion or vigour. I will always be a fan of his back catalogue but if you asked me whether I’d go and see an Age of Ads based show again I would. In a heartbeat.