Sufjan Stevens, Edinburgh Playhouse - 30/9/15

I’m not going to try and play it cool here, I have wanted to see Sufjan live for a LONG time. We’re talking years. I’ve felt disappointed in the past to miss out on giant bird wings or home-made Christmas decorations and tinsel from his previous shows, but I managed to get my hands on one of the hottest tickets of the festival and it was well worth the wait.

Admittedly I’m not a fan of seeing gigs in larger venues, preferring the atmosphere of smaller shows, but Sufjan was playing at the Playhouse as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. It is a beautiful theatre, but I wasn’t sure if some of the beauty of Sufjan’s style (especially given how personal Carrie & Lowell is) would be lost in such a grand venue. Being a seated audience is always a totally different experience as well.

The show opened with the hauntingly beautiful, but perhaps underrated, Redford from Michigan’s B-side. Sufjan was understated as usual, merely a silhouette in a ‘say yes to Michigan’ t-shirt playing an upright piano at the edge of the stage. From there he went straight into playing Carrie & Lowell almost in order whilst he and his band effortlessly moved around the stage switching between instruments.
There were moments of intimacy and intensity throughout the performance, enhanced by old family videos on screens behind the band, or lighting. During the instrumental of ‘Drawn to the Blood’ the whole audience was drenched in red strobe lights, while the delicate ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’ simply offered a spotlight. ‘Fourth of July’ provided a crescendo in the middle of the set, with more instruments and force during the refrain than is on the album.

The three songs he played which were not from Carrie & Lowell were a little different from what I had expected him to include. From the All Delighted People EP he played the melancholic ‘The Owl and the Tanager’, followed by ‘Vesuvius’ (complete with hand actions) and a stunning rendition of Seven Swan’s ‘Sister’ as the penultimate song.

One of the signs of a good gig for me is coming away with a new found love for a song I had previously overlooked. For Sufjan this was ‘John My Beloved’. A song with little more than a muted piano playing and Sufjan’s soft vocals yet he seamlessly sings lyrics such as ‘in a manner of speaking I’m dead’. Even in the stiller moments like this he had the audience totally enraptured.

After an extended instrumental featuring disco balls and blinding lights to finish off the main set, and a well-deserved standing ovation, Sufjan returned sporting a baseball cap for a forty-five minute encore that felt like watching a totally different show. Finally, we heard Sufjan speak, sharing anecdotes and thanks between playing some of his older songs. I had secretly hoped he would play That Was The Worst Christmas Ever, but I’ll give him a pass for not bringing out the Christmas albums in August.

Carrie & Lowell is an album focused on death and loss. While previous albums had their share of songs of loss (Casimir Pulaski Day remains one of my favourites), there was more of Sufjan’s eccentricity shown in the absurdly long song titles, experimental instrumentals, promotional gimmicks and even performances. I personally think he owed it to Carrie & Lowell to do a show so totally focused on the music, providing an experience which felt almost spiritual. It’s rare to be part of an audience so still and captivated from start to finish. But I am glad for an encore which involved a bit more audience interaction after a show which demanded our total awe and attention.

Overall a stunning show and one hell of a tour t-shirt. Bravo.

By Katie Brookfield

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