Sufjan Stevens returns to the Apollo in Manchester tonight in a much more reflective and sombre mood, especially when you compare it against his previous visit in support of the Age of Adz album. This 2011 show was a flamboyant and extravagant affair but the death of his mother in 2012 resulted in Stevens reining in this elaborate streak resulting in 2015’s incredible Carrie and Lowell which allowed him to return to his more acoustic roots. The album is clearly a deeply personal attempt at interpreting and expressing the staggering range of emotions that he experienced following the loss of his mother and it is certainly going to be interesting to see how songs of such a personal nature are presented tonight.
Prior to this, we are treated to an intimate introduction to Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. This mother and son duo from Kansas prove to be the perfect tonic at the start of this intense evening, delivering a short but incredibly sweet set of bluesy, acoustic material which becomes even more distinctive due to Madisen’s incredibly compelling vocals which are as smooth as silk and posses the authenticity to match the sincerity of his songs. The set proves to be a magnificent introduction to two artists I was previously unaware of.
Nine o’clock arrives and the lights dim. The pulsing tones of Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou) swirl around us, establishing the ethereal qualities that the night has in store and Sufjan emerges from the darkness. What follows is a stately and moving presentation of much of his latest album, performed without any pause or a word of thanks. The concert is a seated affair and this seems to enhance the ecclesiastical qualities of the night. Every song starts like the break of a new day. Behind Sufjan and his band are Super 8 home movies, heavenly sunsets, and desolate beaches, all seemingly viewed through the windows of a vast cathedral. Stevens attempts to accentuate this with a more choral element to his vocals at times. This is not always successful and his material works best when delivered in the delicate manner that exists on the record. Should Have Known Better is incredible, initially retaining the gentle fragility of the album version before mutating into a much darker composition midway through the song, replacing the album’s mellow electronica with more invasive synths that change the tone of the song completely.
After seventy incredible minutes the emphasis of the show shifts as Sufjan moves away from Carrie and Lowell for the first time. Vesuvius is extravagant, a little over the top and a million miles away from the previous eleven songs, proving to be quite a jarring experience. It is at this point however that Sufjan engages the audience for the first time. It is a useful break in proceedings, allowing the singer-songwriter to explain in length his predilection for the theme of the show, namely DEATH. We are treated to amusing anecdotes concerning a pet rat called Mr. Bossy Pants that he bathed in holy water and family birthday cakes decorated with the expression, “You never know when you’re gonna go” along with bedtime tales read from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This lighthearted interlude is effective, preparing the crowd for the second half of the show, which allows Stevens to explore material from a range of releases including Michigan, Seven Swans and the All Delighted People EP. He does return to Carrie and Lowell one more time with the final track on the record, Blue Bucket of Gold.
Initially possessing the familiar fragility of much of the record, the song tonight swells into a sonic outpouring of emotions that does not seem to dissipate until the band eventually emerge to a standing ovation. This results in the inevitable encore and a ghostly solo version of Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois before the band return to the stage and the evening concludes with Chicago. A second standing ovation follows. It has been an incredible evening and the appreciative crowd appear to be distinctly aware that they have just experienced a unique artist putting on a deeply personal display full of pathos and emotion, but also a bit of humour.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto