About eight years ago I heard For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti for the first time in an episode of the O.C. After the episode had finished, I Googled the song and discovered Sufjan Stevens and I was in love. Eight years later, and I am seated in the center of the Helix in Dublin, where Stevens has sold out two nights. This is night one, and it’s also the first date of his European tour.
Opening with Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou) from the 2003 album Michigan, Stevens begins the show slowly and softly. He continues with Death with Dignity from the new Album Carrie & Lowell, and there is a quiet melancholy that’s palpable in the performance. This song is the opener to Carrie & Lowell, which Stevens wrote in the aftermath of the death of his estranged mother. He moves through the entirety of the new album, in almost front to back order. There is no talking, no stage banter from Stevens, through the first act. We only hear him speak once before the encore, when he forgets the lyrics to No Shade In The Shadow of the Cross, and quietly asks, “What is it?” to one of the band members. The lack of banter seems intentional to me, like he wants the audience to take the performance of Carrie & Lowell very seriously; after all, the album is ripe with pain and haunting, and it’s obvious that the audience feels every bit of it. There are moments when you can almost feel them hold their breath all at once when Stevens goes in for the high notes, which he nails every single time.
Some of the songs are re-worked for the live performance, like All of Me Wants All of You, which on the album is acoustic. He performs the song live as an electronic remix, complete with enticingly awkward dancing from Stevens.
The first act of the show is beautifully presented, with serene imagery played in the backdrop, matched with a dynamic light show. After we hear Blue Bucket of Gold, he transitions into an instrumental jam. It begins slowly; the light show builds up intensity alongside the instruments, and the song hits a climax where the result is captivating. It reminds me of being at an IMAX movie, because I can feel the performance all around me, as it’s vibrating the audience while stimulating the visual senses simultaneously. Once it fades out, the crowd erupts into a standing ovation, and band retires to back stage while the audience demands an encore.
Stevens and his band return for six more songs, and the second act takes a more casual turn. Stevens is wearing his baseball cap, and he finally talks to the audience. Quipping about his jetlag and the air of Ireland re-aligning his spirit, he cracks a couple jokes and the mood softens. He affirms that he will be playing some happier songs and he launches into In the Devil’s Territory from Seven Swans. Wooing the crowd with old favorites like That Dress Looks Nice On You and Casimir Pulaski Day, things feel different now; the air feels lighter and more uplifting.
The penultimate song to the show is To Be Alone With You, and my heart feels like it may burst. This is one of my favorite songs from Stevens, I am unable to hold back the tears, and I am certainly not alone. Closing off the show with Chicago, the crowd is on their feet again with another roar and standing ovation.
Stevens voice digs deep at me during the entire show and he’s nearly flawless in his performance. He hits every high note, and he is fiercely gentle with the soft parts. There is nothing lacking about Stevens’ live show. I would relive this show a hundred times over if I could.
One of my favorite moments of the set happens early on in the show, during Death with Dignity. Set to a backdrop of cuts of home movies, the song is tender but painful. The ending has the entire band harmonizing, and there is a man sitting near me with a smile and the look of wide-eyed awe on his face, the kind we’d most attribute to a small child. His face suggests he can’t believe the beauty he’s witnessing, a feeling that encapsulates me for the duration of the show.
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Review by Ashley Smith |