Concert Review: Sufjan Stevens @ Massey Hall – Toronto

Sufjan Stevens
On Wednesday, April 29th, I made my way over to my favourite venue in the city for a well anticipated show: Sufjan Stevens at Massey Hall!  Having already seen Sufjan perform live at Massey Hall about 5 years back, I was excited to see what type of theatrics he’d have prepared.  When I saw him touring for Age of Adz, the show was colourful (yes, there were wings), dancy, and experimental.  Since this tour was for his newest release Carrie & Lowell, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect- the album deals with death, family, love and loss, so I knew it would be a different vibe, I just wasn’t quite sure how different.

Promptly at 9pm the lights dimmed, the band hit the stage, and Sufjan opened with a track off his 2003 album Michigan: “Redford”.  The next 10 songs were dedicated to playing through many tracks off the new album, starting with “Death With Dignity”, followed by “Should Have Known Better”, “Drawn to the Blood”, “All of Me Wants All of You”, “Eugene”, “John my Beloved”, “The Only Thing”, “Fourth of July”, “No Shades in the Shadow of the Cross”, and finally “Carrie & Lowell”.

From this first half of the set there were many memorable moments.  To highlight a few, “All of Me Wants All of You” stood out to due to its unexpected jazzy-electronic rendition.  Being one of my favourite songs off the new album, I was surprised by the change in pace, but can understand why; this album has a lot of heaviness, so breaking it up for the crowd probably isn’t a bad idea.  I saw a similar change-up with “Drawn to the Blood”; the heavy bass and escalating synth was an add-on that altered the otherwise lyrically-solemn (but beautiful) track.  Either way, it worked really well!

After Sufjan played through most of the tracks off Carrie & Lowell, he sat at the piano and captured the audience with an unexpected—and wonderfully dark—track: “The Owl and the Tanager”.  Now I have to admit I was not expecting him to play this, but I was so enraptured that I just listened in awe.  I would like to note that about halfway through this song I could hear a lot of sniffling around me-yes, people were crying.  It was beautiful.

Then, just in time, Sufjan stood up and broke the heaviness; he spoke- “Thank you!”, and proceeded to tell us about his parents, death, reincarnation, animals, childhood, and life.  Sufjan told us that he’d “been thinking a lot about death lately…it’s been rough playing these songs over and over, […but as he plays them more he] feels less and less depressed by death”.  He explained how their stories reside in him, and he carries their memories. He recounted memories of childhood, his animals, and the important past lives they’d lived, whether they were residents of Atlantis or King Solomon.

The rest of the show took on a more relaxed vibe, and was filled with classics including “The Dress Looks Nice on You”, “Sister”—which was in fact dedicated to his sister—and “Futile Devices”.  Sufjan ended the set with a heavy, drawn out, ear and eye capturing version of “Blue Bucket of Gold”.  After the standing ovation, chanting, and evident crowd-wide request for an encore, Sufjan returned to the stage and played 4 songs for the encore.

The encore started with an unexpected gem: “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”.  A wonderful way to lull the crowd, Sufjan next moved to an emotional track—again, I was surrounded by sniffles and eye-wiping audience members—“To Be Alone With You”.  He then, nervously, played a Neil Young cover “There’s a Word”, telling us of his love for music and mixed tapes as a teenager.  He ended the encore with a crowd pleaser: “Chicago”!  Adorably, he replaced some lyrics “drove to Toronto, all things go”, and you could hear voices echoing as everyone sung along.

The show was truly amazing.  The subtle background images—what looked like a picket fence with rolling scenery and childhood home videos—added a sincere touch.  The conversations about life, death, family and music was an amazing way to gain insight into this raw album, and made it a warm and memorable show.

Sufjan’s newest album Carrie & Lowell is out, and if you haven’t heard it yet it’s well worth a listen (or 100 listens…)

For all features on Sufjan Stevens, click here.

Review by Nadia Kaakati | @NadiaKaakati

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