Friday, 20 May 2011

Impossible Soul: Sufjan Stevens live at Manchester Apollo 19th May 2011

He begins by lulling us into a false sense of security.  Just him strumming a banjo and with lights down low, Sufjan Stevens croons the opening of Seven Swans to a hushed audience.  The first clue to the adventure that lies ahead comes about halfway through the song when he unveils a pair of spectacular white feather wings which he has somehow tucked away behind his back.  The tone for the night is more accurately set by the industrial clamour of Too Much followed by The Age of Adz and I Walked, each accompanied by much neon and synchronised dance routines.  The latter particularly, which on record is a sweet and quiet electronic lullaby, is transformed into a powerfully beat-driven techno extravaganza. 

The evening isn't entirely focused on his most recent album (also called The Age of Adz).  Every few songs Stevens' backing band take a break and he performs acoustically.  REM's The One I Love becomes a sparse and plaintive cry, Sister from his fourth album Seven Swans is performed along with a call-and-response of "duh duh duh duh's" from the audience (after some rehearsal).  There is also a beautiful piano rendition of The Owl & The Tanager from his recent All Delighted Peoples EP. 

But it is during the hectic electro-pop from The Age of Adz that he really seems to enjoy himself and let rip.  Despite the music sounding more upbeat than past albums, the lyrics still belie a yearning and fragility at the heart of his songwriting.  I Want To Be Well, with it's repeated refrain of "I want to be well... I'm not fucking around" is as heartbreaking as it is danceable.

The culmination of the performance is an epic 30 minute version of album closer Impossible Soul.  Featuring acoustic folk, drum and bass breaks, R&B-influenced pop, hip hop and a joyous horn section all within one song, and performed while wearing George Clinton-style dark glasses and helmet and multi-coloured neon wings, it's a breathtaking statement of intent.  I feel quite exhausted as glitter cannons fire and he and band take a bow and exit stage left.  But...

... it's not quite over yet.  Two hours after he first began playing Stevens appears back on stage, day-glo catsuit and wings abandoned in favour of jeans and t-shirt.  When he plays the first few notes of Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois, the first track from his hugely acclaimed folk-pop masterpiece Come On Feel The Illinoise!, the audience (cliched but true) go wild.  When he then launches into Casimir Pulaski Day I think the middle aged man near me actually cries with joy.  This song brings one of those magical gig moments that are remembered forever.  Appropriately for the lyrical content of the song ("Tuesday night at the bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body") there have been people quietly singing along throughout, not so loudly to be annoying but just enough to give a hymn-like, almost prayerful quality to the song.  And then, spontaneously and as one, the entire audience (apart from me and Richard, who have issues with audience participation) suddenly sings the "duh duh duh" refrain along with Stevens.  It's so totally unexpected and beautiful that it moves me almost to tears.

Finally, a riotous version of Chicago brings the house down, and multi-coloured balloons down from the ceiling.  I walk out into the night caring not a jot for the 2 hour drive ahead of me, just feeling immensely glad to have had the chance to experience something so special.