Sufjan Stevens :: Royal Festival Hall, London, 13-5-11

Image © I-boy,
the arts desk

I’ve been avoiding writing this. Because, what I saw on Friday night, which I might call a psychedelic happening of sorts, consumed me to the point of disorientation, joy, worship and downright awe. There are gigs and then there are shows. Experiences. Events where you walk out of the auditorium so dazzled that you struggle to comprehend and describe what you’ve witnessed. Sufjan Stevens.

He’s come a long way from his early folk days, making albums like the scripture-influenced Seven Swans, progressing to more ambitious projects like Illinoise, part of his, now abandoned, vow to make an album about each of the 50 states. Michigan, Illinois, what was next? Rhode Island?! Perhaps it was a gimmick, perhaps he believed it but, regardless, I’m grateful that, following the release of the wonderful All Delighted People (his idea of an EP – an hour long) in August 2010, he launched The Age of Adz, one of my albums of last year, in October. A song cycle of epic beats, samples and fluent guitar and keyboard playing, anthems all, it spoke of his inner spiritual crisis and, without putting it lightly, recent mental breakdown. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.

To perform it, he didn’t just roll out the songs and collect the applause. He spoke of star people and celestial visitors, all dripping with his unique blend of goofy, adorable, innocent irony. He knows how pretentious it all sounds, and seems to have a natural tendency to preface his banter with winks about bullshit psychobabble. London audiences aren’t much for rambling so you can imagine that we knew we were witnessing something unusual when you could have heard a pin drop during his ten minute tale of self-labelled Louisiana prophet Royal Robertson, an artist who created apocalyptic sci-fi comics and canvases, turned his home into a study in eschatology and stayed in touch with his inner id by refusing to take his schizophrenia medication. Sufjan clearly sees him as a kindred spirit, another casualty of spiritual panic, struggling to reconcile himself between his Christian faith and the pull of the universe. Both men design to hold onto their sanity in the middle of the wonder that surrounds us in the face of overwhelming outside influences.

His ten-piece band, dressed in fluorescent suits, played his complex art-rock electronica, with a screen behind them and, often, in front; a gauze descending to the floor as geometric shapes and spaceships whirled on both screens. Throwing off his feathery angel wings after the first song he indulged in some seriously daft dancing, and this was the mix of the night – cult of personality, intricate, powerful music, a product of 21st century technology and true vision, and a self-deprecating tale here and there. There’s an awareness of his genius within him, which is belied by his fantastically uncool charm. He almost seems embarrassed to be putting this deeply personal, but attention seeking, heartfelt, but self-indulgent, material out there.

Late on, he put on a silver cloak, with a rotating mirror ball chest piece, as a giant diamond prop descended from the rafters. It looked even more amazing and odd than it sounds. Sufjan is endlessly inventive and creative, with a delicate voice, and undeniable proficiency on any instrument he chooses to pick up; I can say after more than 20 years of gig going I’ve never seen a performance quite like it. The main show came to an end with a nearly 25 minute rendition of Impossible Soul, from, like most of the evening’s material, The Age of Adz. We sang its blissful refrain – boy, we can do much more together, it’s not so impossible. The encore saw a couple of Illinoise tracks, accompanied by Flaming Lips-style balloons and confetti tumbling from the ceiling, as the hall’s seats were abandoned and we danced joyously, led by this Pied Piper.

“Hi, my name is Sufjan Stevens and I'm your entertainment for the evening. We're gonna sing some songs about love, death and the apocalypse. It should be a lot of fun”.

Seven Swans
Too Much
Age of Adz
I Walked
Now That I'm Older
Get Real Get Right
Enchanting Ghost
I Want To Be Well
Futile Devices
Impossible Soul

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