Sufjan Stevens serenades the Palace Theatre
By Russo Millien
April 21, 2015
Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens stopped by the Palace Theatre on his tour to play material from his universally acclaimed album “Carrie & Lowell” last Wednesday, April 15.
For two hours in the Palace Theatre, Stevens sang, laughed, and occasionally charmed the audience. Backed by his band on stage, Stevens alternated from playing piano, acoustic guitar, banjos and even ukulele for various different songs. His lyrics were brought to life in the foggy Palace stage by a multi colored light show which surged and swelled with the songs. Nine screens behind the performance showed scenery of childhood clips in the background all throughout the performance.
Opening for Stevens was Cold Specks, the stage name of song-writer Ladan Hussein who is based in Montreal.
The soul singer crooned on stage illuminated by a single spotlight and performed songs from her new album “Neuroplasticity.” With a sound that she categorized as “doom soul” in an interview with The Guardian, Cold Specks captivated the crowd as they waited for Stevens to appear.
A short wait ensued to prepare the stage for Sufjan Stevens as stage hands clad in black scurried and moved the instruments.
With a blue pulse from the spotlights, the scene slowly began to unfold. Sufjan Stevens was sitting upon a grand piano playing the song Redford. The morose piece was accompanied by his bandmate, Dawn, as they keened along to the melody.
A short lo-fi riff of synthetic beeps transitions the song into “Death with Dignity” which speaks about the loneliness Stevens felt after his mother died, because of the lack of relationship they had when she were living. An expansive blue swell from the stage lights punctuated the crescendo of the end of the song.
Singled out by the spotlight at the start of the third song “Should of Known Better,” Sufjan Stevens continued to sing ruefully alone while plucking away at his guitar with projections of a beach behind him. Two minutes into the song his band caught up to him to provide backup angelic vocals and barely any beat save for the light sounds from the cymbals and tambourines. A folky sounding song with well-placed electric guitar notes, “Should of Known Better” took the audience to the Sufjan Stevens initial reaction to his mother’s death. Looking on these moments in his life seems to help him find tranquility and acceptance of his late mothers passing at the end.
Lighting in the Palace Theatre was essential to capture the sort of mood Sufjan Steven’s songs brought the audience. “Drawn to Blood” found Stevens draped in a crimson ray of light. “For my prayer has always been love what did I do to deserve this now?” Stevens asks. Eventually abandoning words he proceeds to play a synthesizer next to him to orchestrate a swell of cacophony that is only put to rest by the next song “All of Me Wants All of You.” Fans were in for a treat as this version of “All of Me Wants All of You” used an electronic sound.
As lively as Sufjan Stevens was that evening, tragedy and death served as his inspiration. “Carrie & Lowell” offers the mind state of Sufjan Stevens by the 2012 death of his mother, Carrie, and the family trips they took to Oregon in Stevens’ childhood
After performing the title track “Carrie and Lowell,” Sufjan Stevens finally addressed the audience halfway through the concert.
Offering a bittersweet anecdote on how going to his great-grand mother’s funeral and seeing her dressed like a homecoming queen turned his childhood perception of death into one of a “romantic and matronly” sot of image. He went to explain how having seeing his dog Chester get hit by a car and die, having his pet rat die at the hands of his father’s hammer who was putting it out of misery because it had to many tumors, his cacti which he over-nurtured out of love, to eventually being around for his Uncle John dying of cancer and his aunt dying of a broken heart. Witnessing one death after another eventually defeated his childhood perception of death.
Invoking Orson Wells, Steven quoted him by saying, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” Disagreeing with that quote Stevens continued to say, “I believe that even though death is tragic and it sort of like remains in us and resides in us, it can somehow possess us and [put us] in to very dark corners. I started thinking of it as a companion, as a sort of friend that you carry around and each person that dies remains within you, the spirit resides in you. Almost like muscle memory.”
Continuing his show Stevens later played the song an older song “Sister.” Playfully forgetting the song’s melody he employed the aid of his band mate Casey. On his electric guitar Casey played out the melody so that Stevens could continue.
Ending his set with the song “Bucket of Blue” the concert ended with an ethereal like climax. The audience offered a standing ovation and Stevens returned for an encore to play classics songs from his older albums. These songs included “Concerning the UFO Landing Near Highland,” “Illinois,” “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” and “Chicago.”
Longtime fans were pleased by his concert. Alessia Brambilla, a UAlbany exchange student from Italy, enjoyed the show from the third row.
“I’ve loved him since I was 15,” said Brambilla.