Monday, November 06, 2006
Sufjan Stevens @ The Barbican, 3 November
Pros and cons about gigs in concert halls. On the plus side the sound is almost faultless. Well, it would have to be. The Barbican is the home of the London Symphony Orchestra after all. The sound system has to catch every nuance of a whole host of instruments normally, so Sufjan's big horn section and everything else is in perfect balance.
However on the minus side, there isn't the celebratory atmosphere that maybe Sufjan was expecting, given the huge piles of inflatables on stage - a pile of Supermen on one side and an even bigger pile of Santas on the other. Maybe it's the concert hall vibe, but when Sufjan started tossing the Supermen into the crowd at the start of The Man of Metropolis, I think he was expecting people to start bouncing them around in a fun kinda way. Instead the lucky audience members just catch and keep them. When he chucks the Santas out later in his set, during That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!, he has to encourage the folks in the stalls to go for the flying Santa participation thing. It lasts for a few minutes, and from our position up in the gods we look down on an oddly comical flurry of flying red and white Father Christmases, wheezing as they go. But then the concert hall vibe kicks in again the funny flights stop.
These things aside, the gig (or should I say concert) is pretty amazing. Sufjan's not one to trot out the same live show again and again. This is a far cry from his Bush Hall gig a couple of years ago when he was armed with an overhead projector, a map of Michigan and swan wings. It's even different from last year's cheerleaders shows and the string quartet gigs at Kings College. He's an artist that seems to want to keep trying new and interesting things. So he's here with a full horn section augmenting the rest of his band. It all sounds fantastic, with Sufjan leading the pack of butterfly-winged players, whilst sporting his own eagle wings. The big brass sound doesn't suit every song – the quieter songs like Casimir Pulaski Day don’t need their beauty augmenting, but on the likes of Seven Swans, it’s stunning, adding an element of awe to the apocalyptic imagery of the song.
The songs Sufjan and the band play mostly come from Seven Swans and Illinois. But he also plays a new song – Majesty, Snowbird which certainly lives up to the first word of its name – a glorious, spine-tingling 10 minutes of wonder. Much like the rest of the gig.
Sometimes I wonder about the appeal of Sufjan Stevens. How can a man whose songs celebrate America and strongly reference Christianity hold an indie audience in secular, too-cool London so rapt? But he does. There’s no idle chat during songs tonight. And he gets a standing ovation, which he follows with a three-song encore, which I’m not sure was all totally planned. As he stands there playing guitar or banjo, rocking backwards and forwards, his wings flap gently, as if he’s warming up for flight. He may as well have. Tonight he really does soar.
For the interested, here's the setlist, with some downloads (thanks to Sufjanfans for the info)
2) The Transfiguration
4) The Tallest Man
5) Casimir Pulaski Day
6) All the Trees in the Field will Clap their Hands
8) The Predatory Wasp
9) John Wayne Gacy Jnr
10) That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!
11) Seven Swans
12) Majesty, Snowbird
14) Corncerning the UFO Sighting
15) The Dress Looks Nice on You
Buy Michigan or Illinoise or Seven Swans or The Avalanche
mp3 of Majesty, Snowbird from ryspace
decent photo of Sufjan from freekorps' Flickr photostream. The crappy one at the top of the post is of course, mine - all the way from the upper circle