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Friday, October 2, 2015

Sufjan Stevens, intimacy for the masses

Sufjan Stevens (+ Austra), Auditori Fòrum, Barcelona, September 29th

Sufjan & Dawn Landes, folk of the heart. Photo: Bloodbuzzed
Despite not being the most fervent fan, or even a regular one, although I love 'Seven Swans' (a song about one of the best short stories of Flannery O'Connor, you have me) and I'm pretty sure 'Carrie & Lowell' is among the best releases of the year, I have to admit I was pretty excited with Sufjan Stevens' gig at Auditori, the first time I was going to see the Michigan artist live. Hipsterland, commonly known as Barcelona, seemed to be all gathered at the Fòrum. The date seemed an unmissable one.

Dark waves with Austra. Photo; Bloodbuzzed

The night didn't started in the most promising way, though. Not to say Austra's music is bad or that their performance was disappointing. Katie Stelmanis is an impressive singer and their songs, if you are into that dark-disco/new wave style, even darker live (her most famous songs, the stunning 'Lose you' sounded gloomy and intensely desperate) are going to appeal you for sure. No, the question mark here is what does she have to do with Sufjan's music? It simply didn't fit there...

No shade in the shadows of the band. Photo: Bloodbuzzed
Anyway, on time at 21:00 Sufjan and his troupe took the Auditori's stage and after opening with 'Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)', they performed 'Carrie & Lowell' in its entirety and almost following the record's order. 'Death With Dignity' and the strikingly beautiful 'Should Have Known Better' were the first two gems to arrive, making the miracle of disarming 3.000 souls with an exercise of intimacy and naked vulnerability so rare to find in popular music (we were lucky to be seated on the first row and we could assure Sufjan looked affected with the performance of several songs). 'Drawn to the Blood', 'Eugene', 'John My Beloved', 'The Only Thing', a stunning collection of tunes performed brilliantly by an impeccable band, where Dawn Landes was beyond terrific on backing vocals and all sorts of duties all night. Even the fragile, somewhat broken voice of Sufjan, seemed to add another piece of wonder to the gig. Unique atmosphere, embellished by the stark but touching visuals that backed the band.

A man, his thoughts, his feelings, his songs . Photo: Bloodbuzzed

But then arrived 'Fourth of July', one of the masterpieces of his latest album, and doubts arised. With Sufjan on piano, the arresting, devastating tune, evolved into an epic monster that for sure left the audience dazed, but changed the vibe of the album and the gig completely. 'No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross' and 'Carrie & Lowell' seemed to return to the previous folkier path. A mirage. Then came 'All of Me Wants All of You', with its electronic R&B beats and Stevens dances. It was the beginning of a concert section where electronics leaded the way, with 'The Owl and the Tanager', 'Vesuvius', imo almost laughable, 'I Want to Be Well' and the visually gorgeous but neverending outro 'Blue Bucket of Gold'. Maybe Sufjan wanted to shift from indie-folk for a while, worried such a big audience was going to "disconnect" from the gig with too many slow, moody numbers. Understandable but, being diplomatic, not my cup of tea. Not a fan of 'Age of Adz'.

The return of the folk singer. Photo: Bloodbuzzed

The show couldn't end that way. And luckily, it didn't. As a matter of fact, the encore felt like a completely different gig, with Sufjan returning to stage dressed as the recognisable folk-singer with baseball cap and colourful shirt, and much more talkative with the audience, to offer a short set of "Sufjan classics", with 'Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois', 'Heirloom', the goosebumps of 'For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti' and the final trio of 'John Wayne Gacy, Jr.', the great 'Casimir Pulaski Day' and, of course, 'Chicago', which lacked its joyful fanfare in a somewhat lukewarm acoustic version. One can't argue: the performance was flawless, immaculate, definitely a thing to watch. It's easy to understand why the public was fascinated and stood up to applaud the band during minutes. Also the universal praise of critics on the following days. But for me, I can't say it was an unforgettable, life-changing gig, because some of the choices made by the artist during part of the gig didn't convince me. Just a matter of taste on an otherwise indispensable artist...

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