After hearing from dozens of people that Sufjan Stevens puts on one of the best live shows, I knew I had to go when I saw he announced a date in Austin. The venue was Bass Concert Hall, typically reserved for orchestras, ballets, and classy events that exist on a plane far outside my reach. It was the first concert I’d been to that included a seat number on the ticket since the Backstreet Boys rocked my world in the Spring of 2004 and I forced my dad to bring my gaggle of wildly-hormonal and irrationally-loud pre-teen friends. My braces and I had a night to remember, and after that I was hooked. I became a concert junkie.
I sat in my designated red velvet seat and listened to the pre-show buzz steadily grow as more and more people arrived. This was definitely a different musical scene for me. Typically, you can find me at any Austin dive bar - the dodgier the better - with a LoneStar in my hand and half of it spilled down the front of my shirt. I’m not that clumsy of a drinker, but booze-soaked clothes are somewhat of an occupational hazard when you write for The Grateful Web. When I’m not dancing to the music with my eyes closed I’m employing tired old techniques to try and squeeze my way to the front of the crowd. None of that here. I sipped my red wine, (all of which stayed in my glass, thank you) and exhaled. I was mentally prepared for this experience.
Opening for Sufjan was an equally remarkable act: Moses Sumney. His sound was both fresh and uplifting, he had a voice like an angel but the 6’4” stature of a Greek god. When he received applause after his song “Seeds” he commented, “Thanks. That’s really nice. You could’ve booed…or left.” As humble as he was talented, he kept us on the edge of our seats the whole of his 35-minute set.
Then, the act took the stage. The lights came on and he was already seated at his piano. His band launched into their set without small talk or fan fare, and it would be over an hour before he finally addressed the crowd. For those of you who have never heard of Sufjan Stevens, he sounds like Iron & Wine had a baby with Paul Simon, but there was speculation that Thom Yorke might be the father, so genetic testing was requested after Sufjan was born. He sounds exactly like his albums, which always a pleasant experience when you see an artist you like perform live for the first time. The thing about his concerts, though, is that he creates an experience. He takes you out of your seat, and plants you in the world he has carved out within each song.
Accompanying the music was an ever-changing visual aid. For many of the songs, reels of home videos (I’m assuming his) played in the background. The intimacy this created between himself and the audience is not possible to convey in this article. For others, he employed strobe lights or graphics that were timed perfectly to the nuances of his songs. He played a couple of his more popular songs; many from his most recent album that was dedicated to his mom.
When he finally greeted the audience, he received spontaneous applause. This launched a monologue from him about how positively reinforcing encouragement is. How he used to hate it, find it distracting, clapping would pull him out of the moment so he’d wear noise-cancelling head phones and “tune the world out.” He took a sip of his beer. “Don’t do that,” he mused. “That’s terrible. Let the world in.”
And when Sufjan Stevens gives you advice, you probably should take it. So we did. We let the world in. We let his songs physically remove us from where we were and take us to a place that existed in his imagination. And it fucking rocked.