It’s has been roughly five years since Sufjan Stevens last toured Europe. His artistry was a different prospect then. Having released the ambitious Illinoise album, he was the height of his singer-songwriter folk fame. With nowhere to go within the boundaries of the genre and to escape the gimmicky non sequitur of the 50 States project, Stevens created The BQE, a multimedia production about the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The ambition carried over into the All Delighted People EP and The Age of Adz (pronounced Odds), released last year – a sprawling and somewhat difficult album with its heart in time with electronic pulses yet ornate with traditional instruments.
Sufjan’s 2011 live show is the premium way to experience The Age Of Adz. To do justice to the songs, the live set is a bombastic experience. Last night’s show (in the true sense of the word) was largely a dramatic reading of the new album. It began with a cacophony of squalling voices, a test of the Olympia Theatre’s acoustics before a slow-building version of ‘Seven Swans’ erupted in colour and sound. Slowly the extent of the setup is revealed to us: an 11 piece band, neon clad band uniforms, front and back screen projection, choreographed on-stage dancing, impressive suitable visuals and giant angel wings.
The songs from Adz and the EP form the basis of much of the entire set. As a production, it’s about as epic as live music can get without incorporating more than the musicians on stage. The grandiosity of the setup and the neon aesthetic of the show, fully represent the songs from The Age of Adz; it is the perfect medium for them.
In between numbers, Sufjan talks at length about his craft. Referring to the songs as being about “love, heartache and the apocalypse”, he jokes about dancing in 7/8 time for ‘Too Much’. He explains, as was pretty obvious by the big show placed before us, that he was tired of the formality of folk and approached his recent material with sound effects and collage first rather than his usual convention, and then “superimposed a pop song on it”. He talked about how language was repressive and explained that the troubled artist Royal Robertson became his muse for his songs as well as the on-stage visuals before introducing one “about god, hot chicks and outer space” . Yet, he still broke away from the band setup to play some solo acoustic numbers at the edge of the stage.
The band finish the new songs with ‘Impossible Soul’, on record it’s an exhaustive 25 minute multi-part piece which ends The Age of Adz. In a live spectacle, it was a microcosm of the entire show: dancing, euphoria, big brass, Autotuned vocals, a diamond lowered from the rafters, confetti, front of stage dancing from a monkey-masked Sufjan and his two neon dancing cohorts (one of who climbs into the seated box at the side of the stage). It was a moving denouement and an example of just how suited the songs are to big theatrical narrative-led performances.
After a long foot-stamping encore call from the audience (who it must be said were the most polite and silent crowd I’ve ever experienced at a gig), Sufjan, dressed down in his regular clothes came out and performed ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’ solo standing at a piano before the rest of the band joined him in the final song, a celebratory version of ‘Chicago’ with giant balloons. An ambitious, grandiose “cosmic pageant”, Sufjan in 2011 is more of a visionary than he once appeared.