Sufjan Stevens – Apollo, Manchester – 31/08/15

Sufjan Stevens is a rather elusive character when it comes to live shows. Despite first seeing him in 2006 at Manchester’s academy 2, this was to be only the third time I’d be seeing Stevens live.

That first show was pretty much the perfect Sufjan Stevens show. It was coming off the back of his much loved Illinoise album and still holds up as one of my favourite ever gigs.  A little known St. Vincent was first supporting and then later joined Stevens on stage as part of his touring band. That evening the whole cast were dressed as butterflies and played through Illinoise, what can be argued is his best work, using strings, brass and everything else in between.

The second was in support of the Age of Adz album and in front of a sold out Manchester Apollo. The performance was colourful and Stevens was flamboyant, but that album never really did anything for me and so, on me, the event was a little wasted.

Now here we are, in 2015, back in front of a sold out Apollo theatre. This time the standing room made way for an all seated affair and in keeping with the latest record a stripped back performance was expected. Carrie & Lowell, Stevens’ seventh studio album in fifteen years has been praised by pretty much everyone.

Support on the evening came from Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a soulful, bluesy, folk two piece from Kansas City.  The duo looked like a mother and son which, upon researching, is unsurprising because they actually are.  After their first track they were joined by two more people, one who sat at the drum kit with brushes and the other who took bass duties.  It was an enjoyable half hour slot with track ‘Undertaker and Juniper’ being a personal stand out.  I’d recommend checking them out.

When Sufjan Stevens and band took to the stage, it was under the cover of darkness.  Stevens was positioned in front of the piano and as the opening keys to ‘Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)’ filled the room, an orange glow filled the stage highlighting the silhouettes of the five people stood upon it.  I’ve always loved ‘Redford’ but the additional vocals, synth and drums really brought the usual piano track to life.

Home movies of Stevens during his childhood rolled on the screens at the back of the stage during Carrie & Lowell album opener ‘Death with Dignity’.  The track was a good place to start due to the theme of album, and of the evening, being death.  From this point on it was the tracks from the latest release that took precedent.  The band were continuously switching instruments in the middle of tracks, using the darkness to hide their movements and doing so flawlessly, maintaining the incredible sound that they were generating.

In fact, at times during this early Carrie & Lowell stage, it was almost as if the songs had been run through an Age of Adz generator.  The second half of ‘Should Have Known Better’ was unbelievably electronic and it was at its most notable during ‘All of Me Wants All of You’; a song that stands out as one of the most haunting on the record.  Another highlight from this segment was the superb ‘Fourth of July’.  There was something a little bittersweet about hearing such beautiful music having the words “We’re all going to die” repeatedly sung by three individuals over the top, however.

‘Vesuvius’ broke the streak of new songs and also showed that Stevens can make mistakes. Thirty seconds into the song he had to halt it and then just silently began it again.  It was after this track that he spoke his first words of the evening.  “It’s a shame to sing so many songs about death in a room that is so full of life” he said, almost apologetically.  This led to a five or so minute story detailing his parent’s obsession with death and his own personal dealings with it.  First in the form of his pet rat ‘Mr. Bossypants’ and second being a boy named ‘Opey’ in his school that nobody liked which led to the school councilor offering the class some advice which still sticks with him today.  It was a touching moment, one that I’m sure he shares most evenings, but it still came across as genuine.

The second half of the set was a ‘best of’ of sorts, more a ‘best of the death songs’ from Steven’s impressive back catalogue.  ‘In The Devil’s Territory’ was heart achingly beautiful, and ‘To Be Alone With You’ stole the award for the best song of the set.  ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’, the final track on Carrie & Lowell, brought to the set to a close, and boy was it a closer.  The track, which normally comes in at just under five minutes, was extended to near fifteen and saw Stevens briefly depart the stage.  Upon his return (with traditional baseball cap on head) the venue was treated to a wall of noise not uncommon at a My Bloody Valentine show.  My bottle of water was visibly rocking back and forth on the balcony due to the loudness of the bass coming from the PA.

Quiet was restored from that point as Sufjan moved to the piano to sing ‘Concerning the UFO sighting Near Highland, Illinois’ on his own.  This was before, sadly predictably, the band returned to play the most famous of tracks, ‘Chicago’.  As expected, this version was a stripped back affair, but no less enjoyable.  The band ended the night by taking to the centre to the stage, enjoying the standing ovation they were receiving from the Manchester Apollo.

As much as I loved this show, it still didn’t live up to the heights reached during that gig of 2006.  Had I never seen Stevens before, this review would have most likely been a completely different one.  Gushing over how he could be THE songwriter/performer of my generation.  However, I have seen the Sufjan Stevens of old and as good and as personable as he is now, it still doesn’t quite compare.