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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Sufjans Stevens

Sufjan Stevens
Royal Festival Hall, London, May 13th 2011

Sufjan Stevens first came to prominence with the release of his 2003 album Michigan, the first part of his 51 States project, a hugely ambitious plan to produce a record for each of the United States’ fifty component parts. This was followed by the universally acclaimed Illinois, subtitled, in an unlikely homage to Slade, ‘Come on feel the Illinoise’.  Together these two records defined Stevens’ quite unique (in the world of rock music) sound and his expansive breadth of vision.

The songs, more often than not led by Stevens’ banjo and other quirky folk-style strings but backed by lush orchestrations with full-on brass sections, was pure Americana, in a tradition that was defined by Aaron Copeland.  And Stevens’ new take on the American pastoral was applied to both the rustic (Michigan) and the urban (Illinois, and particularly ‘Chicago’).  But the formula (not meant in the pejorative sense) of wonderfully compelling melodies backed by these big arrangements, remained the same.  Perhaps surprising then that his new album, The Age of Adz (pronounced ‘odds’), has been heralded by critics and some fans as a shocking departure from the old, to a new style dominated by electronica and dance rhythms.  On the face of it, it is; but as this first of two nights at the Royal Festival Hall made very apparent, appearances, whether aural or visual, can be very deceptive.  And though at times this hugely enjoyable performance was, noisy, high-disco-camp, funny and self-deprecating, at its heart (despite the fact that Stevens rather pointedly flung his banjo to the floor half-way through the first song) was the same musical blueprint, melodies and arrangements, that made both Michigan, and particularly Illinois, such a delight to hear.

Sufjans Stevens

Stevens’ muse in creating Adz (pronounced ‘odds’) was artist Royal Robertson, or to use his full title, ‘Libra Patriarch Prophet Lord Archbishop Apostle Visionary Mystic Psychic Saint Royal Robertson’.  A Louisianan artist, who in turn took inspiration from early sci-fi films and comic books, tinged with a blend of pulp fiction, Robertson’s work was Stevens’ ‘springboard into a cosmic consciousness in which basic instincts are transposed on a tableau of extraordinary scenes of divine wrath, environmental catastrophe and personal loss’.  Well, that’s what the website says.  It’s all very reminiscent of Sun Ra.  Flying spaceships, weird alien figures, outlandish costumes and an ever present motif, the Eye of Providence.  

But the effect is compelling, from the first moment when a masked and caped figure put the Festival Hall’s giant organ through its paces.  In fact, it turned out to be an electronic stand-in, as the real 7866 pipe organ is still being refurbished, but it was still pretty impressive.  This was ‘Swan Song’, prompting Stevens to attach a giant pair of swan’s wings to his back.  ‘I’m here to entertain you for the evening, so I’m going to play you a couple of pop songs” said Stevens (sans wings) before moving onto ‘Age of Adz’ (pronounced ‘odds’) and ‘I walked’ from the new album.  This was one of the shorter of his digressions, which covered diverse topics such as his dancing technique (painfully studied and self-parodic) and the life and times of Royal Robertson; ‘Royal’, as a note to completists, was blazoned on his guitar with luminous paint. 

Sufjans Stevens 3

The majority of the material in the main set came from Adz (pronounced ‘odds’), with ‘I want to be well’ deserving particular mention for the Casio keyboard solo. The set ended with a suitably climatic, loud and lengthy ‘Impossible soul’, during which Stevens donned some very improbable costumes which looked as they had come from a pretty ancient episode of Dr Who.  The audience went crazy.  And to finish, Stevens treated his diehard fans to an encore of songs from Illinois.

There are few performers who could match the panoramic musical landscape that Stevens creates.  His songs may be a little too self-absorbed (I may be guilty of gross understatement on that point) but that’s easily forgiven, particularly when the three- man (sometimes four) trombone section start blasting away.  Quite unique and quite unforgettable; the odds (pronounced ‘Adz’) are that you’d fully agree. – Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

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