Sufjan Stevens Shone With Sorrowful Genius at Philadelphia's Academy of Music

Stevens goes for a transformative, pensive, and atmospheric live presentation. Ultimately, that’s what makes his artistry so one-of-a-kind and invaluable.

Cold Specks

Sufjan Stevens + Cold Specks

City: Philadelphia
Venue: The Academy of Music
Date: 2015-04-10

Given his remarkable ability to defy genre categorization and relish experimentation, the Michigan multi-instrumentalist and composerSufjan Stevens is easily one of the few true musical geniuses of his generation. Be it the reserved yet earnest storytelling of Seven Swans, the baroque pop intricacy of Illinois, or the avant-garde electronic madness of The Age of Adz, Stevens presents a new persona on just about every record, demonstrating an unmatched level of artistic integrity and idiosyncratic prestige. No one else does what he does, which makes both his studio efforts and live sets so distinctive.

Case in point: his 10 April 2015 show at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Replicating the entirety of his newest LP, Carrie & Lowell, as well as some prior fan favorites, Stevens’ performance was a brilliant synthesis of affective music and visuals that culminated in the most emotionally intense concert I’ve ever seen. In fact, many attendees were in tears by the end.

Opening for Stevens was Cold Specks, a “doom soul” ensemble led by Somali-Canadian songstress/guitarist Ladan Hussein, who adopted the moniker from a line in James Joyce’s polarizing 1922 novel, Ulysses (“Born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness”). Unsurprisingly, she favored songs from both I Predict a Graceful Expulsion (2012) and Neuroplasticity (2014), such as “Absisto”, “Blank Maps”, “Hector”, and “When the City Lights Dim”. Basked in standard room lightening, her band stood confident but unassuming while she commanded the crowd with serene acoustic guitar arpeggios and soulful, if also a bit too quirky, singing. Truthfully, the songs themselves weren’t especially memorable, but there’s no denying the altruistic poeticism of her lyrics and presence. Of particular note was her final moment, during which she repeated “I am, I am, I am, I am a goddamn believer” (“Blank Maps”) with conviction and faith, leaving the audience with a bittersweet commentary on social injustice.

Expectedly, the venue erupted in applause when Stevens took to the piano around 9PM. A lone spotlight illuminated him as he began playing “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” from Michigan, accompanied shortly after by the angelic harmonies and ambience of his musicians. It was awe-inspiring and set the stage for the heavenly despair that permeated the rest of the evening. Afterward, home movies were displayed across nine narrow vertical screens as he segued into the first track on Carrie & Lowell, “Death with Dignity.” Although his voice was a bit raspier and lower than it is on the full-length, it still conveyed striking fragility and softness, which is a key component of his songwriting mastery.

From there, he essentially played the rest of Carrie & Lowell as a continuous suite (albeit in an alternate sequence). Inspired by his complex relationship with his mother (who passed away in 2012), the record is an unfalteringly somber, brutally honest, and overwhelmingly touching lamentation on death, loss, family, and self-awareness that, while not very diverse sonically speaking, is relentlessly heartbreaking, beautiful, and hypnotic. Naturally, then, its live treatment was violently introspective, tasteful, and articulate, forcing spectators into silence as they watched him bare his soul with each piercing melody and comparatively luscious arrangement. The recurrent final remark in “Fourth of July” (“We’re all gonna die”) was particularly powerful, and the fact that he didn’t speak to the crowd at all during the recreation added to the mystique and weight of the subject matter.

Oddly enough, though, he interrupted the sequence near the end to do a few tracks from other records. After playing “The Owl and the Tanager” (from All Delighted People) with some incredible flourishes on piano, he apologized for focusing so many songs about death and grief, which brought some much needed levity. He also spoke philosophically for a few minutes about the aforementioned topics, noting the catharsis that came from finally unleashing these feelings after so many years. Next, “For the Widows in Paradise”, “Heirloom”, and “The Dress Looks Nice on You”, arrived, followed by the final song on Carrie & Lowell, “Blue Bucket of Gold.” Granted, it was a bit too intense and lengthy, but the way the he extended the track’s concluding ambience was nonetheless extremely arresting.

Fortunately, his encore didn’t disappoint, either. First, he played “Concerning the UFO Sightings near Highland, Illinois,” whose blend of sorrowful singing and forlorn, echoed piano chords is undoubtedly one of the most gorgeous fragments in his whole discography. Subsequently, the Paul Simon-esque narrative of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” was as stunning as ever, while the whispers of “To Be Alone with You” captivated effortlessly. Thankfully, he finished with “Chicago,” a wonderfully upbeat, catchy, and expansive gem with layers of robust timbres and harmonies. Once completed, he and his crew stood humbly as the audience gave a deafening standing ovation for several minutes. As prolonged and loud as it was, not a second of the applause was underserved.

Complementing the music throughout was an astounding combination of thematic lighting shifts and video clips (consisting mostly of more home movies). For example, blue lights helped intensify the sentiment of “Should Have Known Better,” while the red beams surrounding the band during “Drawn to the Blood” represented the emotional hell inherent in the lyrics. In contrast, the sunny backdrop used for “Eugene” provided a freer aura, and the yellow/orange rays of “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” made for a poignant, regal moment. Also, the dizzying spectacle that joined the finale of “Blue Bucket of Gold” was the most commanding section of the night.

As clichéd as it is to say, seeing Stevens in concert is a very special experience. Not only does his catalog contain some of the most personal, unique, varied, and overall magnificent music of the last 20 years, but the visual accompaniments within the live setting elevate the performance into grippingly tender yet colorful art. Although there are easily more entertaining shows out there in a joyous, communal sense, Stevens goes for a far more transformative, pensive, and atmospheric presentation, and ultimately, that’s what makes his artistry so one-of-a-kind and invaluable.

Splash and thumbnail images of Stevens from his artist page via Asthmatic Kitty.

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