An Ode to life & Sufjan Stevens

The Royal Festival Hall

Wednesday 2 September 2015

“We’re all going to die”

              “We’re all going to die”

                              “We’re all going to die”

stevens church pic

Some days are just so life affirming. Some days you have to just stop and think “wow, this makes it all worthwhile.” And some days everything coincides just so perfectly you can almost believe there is a god up there planning it all out; ok, that last part is maybe pushing it a little too far!

And this day was just one such day when everything seemed just right. I’d been reading the most perfect of books as I traveled up and down into central London (twice in one day, so quite a lot of reading), the sun was giving me the most impressive view from the small office I find myself in on a Wednesday;

view from oxo

I’d seen the most amazing rainbow I’ve ever seen as I made my way back up towards the gig to meet my concert companion, we got a table in a very packed Pizza Express just minutes before the rush started and the queue wound its way out of the door, the food seemed just that little tastier than normal, the sudden rain shower came and went while we were eating so we didn’t get wet, the timing of the food was so perfect to allow us to find our way to the Royal Festival Hall, just one hundred yards away, so that by the time we had sat and taken jackets off, the support were making their way onto the stage.

And some days you are lucky enough to be part of something special, something that will live in your mind forever, like seeing Sufjan Stevens sing “We’re all going to die” over and over, not a refrain of sadness or depression, but one of simple fact, of acceptance of death when it finally comes. But giving the life that was in the Royal Festival Hall tonight, death wasn’t happening today, today was clearly for living and rejoicing.

Sufjan Stevens has a reputation for great live performances, and this was a gig I’d been eagerly waiting for since the day I had spent three hours hitting refresh on my work computer desperately waiting for the Southbank Centre’s website to be restarted, having crashed under the weight of every Stevens fan in the country accessing it at once.   And for an artist who I’ve struggled to find anyone else who has heard of him, there does appear to be a damn lot of us fans out there.

So maybe it was this anticipation that made the day feel so perfect, or maybe it really was just a perfect day, either way it really doesn’t matter. What mattered was that I was there. And after a short and beautiful instrumental opening, Stevens playing the moving piano of “”Redford” he stepped forward and without any words spoken launched into “Death With Dignity”, the opening song from “Carrie and Lowell” the album written as a way to get over the depression caused by the death of his mother. Death does appear a lot doesn’t it!

“Carrie And Lowell” is a thing of pure beauty, an expression of love and forgiveness for his mother who left when he was only one year old, and for his step-father, who introduced him to music and encouraged him to explore it, and who now runs his record label. Death may feature prominently, but it is an acceptance that it happens to us all, that it is natural and not to be feared.

And while the recorded album is one of the mellowest things Stevens has ever done, as he played it out in full tonight, he allows the band to take the songs to new places, to build them to crescendo’s that hold us in wonder as we watch the show before us, the mellow guitar led sound we knew from the album often being transformed into full blown electronica, a three minute piece suddenly becoming ten instead. The sound is accompanied by the lights flashing around the stunning venue, just adding to the feeling that this is something special. And yet all the time Stevens is at the centre, looking so small and vulnerable as he bears his soul to the world.

stevens alone

There is hardly a sound from the audience as all this transpires around us, just as there are no words from stevens throughout the main body of the set. But even so we, his congregation, sit transfixed by the whole event in front of us, myself, like so many others I am sure, simply grinning madly in a state of euphoria as the man bares his heart to us all, and in return we give him our love.

The main set ends with sixteen minutes of “Blue Bucket of Gold”, another song that is transformed from its album version into a wall of sound and lights for the closing ten minutes as the band create a soundscape that we never want to end, notes lasting forever as the hall is transformed into his church, the lights shining off the lowered mirrors that suddenly look like windows; we are in his church and we are certainly here to worship.

  If you dont have 16 minutes free, please please please glance at four minutes in to see the visual of this!!!!!

It’s 90 minutes of pure delight, and it’s clear the effect that the performance has on so many of us. It’s an experience that has to be shared with others so we can believe that we actually witnessed it.

When the band re-emerge for the encore (if 30 more minutes can be an encore and not actually a second half?), it’s more relaxed, Stevens finally speaks, announcing to us that “we got through it, we got through the vortex.” We know what he means, it was a delight but it was emotionally wrought too, and the encore seems designed to bring us back out of the silence we had fallen into before, a chance to relax and enjoy after the sheer emotion of it all.

As we hit the final song of the night, it is a bittersweet moment. We are here, we experienced something special, but now it is almost over. At least until he comes again, hopefully not another five years this time before he graces us with his brilliance.

Thankfully that final song happens to be “Chicago”, a song of hope and yet more redemption and forgiveness, “I’ve made mistakes, I don’t mind, I don’t mind” Stevens sings, and we all nod, all agreeing, we don’t mind at all, not one little piece.

Some days are just perfect, and some days everything clicks into place and you realise how great life is. And sometimes a man sings to us and the words just seem right, just seem to sum up that moment. To me today was that day, and so thank you Sufjan, thank you so very very much for sharing with us this moment.

“You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow
We had our mindset
All things know, all things know
You had to find it
All things go, all things go”

Of course, I did so want to see the wings, but never mind…


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