The enigmatic Sufjan Stevens came to Atlanta’s beautiful OTP venue, Cobb Energy Centre, touring behind his stunningly perfect 2015 album Carrie & Lowell, named for his mother and stepfather. If you know the story, Sufjan is reflecting on the death of his mother Carrie, who was diagnosed bipolar and schizophrenic, and suffered from drug addiction and substance abuse. All it takes is one listen, whether knowing the backstory or not, to immediately feel the emotional nature of this album. But going into the show, the question was how could Sufjan and his band convert that raw emotion in a live setting without losing it, driving the audience to tears, or simply falling asleep, challenges not exactly new to Sufjan.
This was my first time seeing Sufjan Stevens live, kind of a bucket list type artist. I’ve heard the stories from others that have seen his show in the past, with multiple friends saying his live show is the best they’ve ever seen, a show that sticks out from the many other shows in their lifetime. Not that there was ever really any doubt in my mind that this would be an incredible show, but seeing is believing, and well, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
The show started out with LA based Gallant, a futuristic R&B artist in the vein of The Weeknd,
James Blake, or a little How To Dress Well. At first it seemed like an odd pairing with Sufjan. At times Gallant brought out images of Banks but harder beats. Other songs sounded out of the playbook of Beach House, chill, but with his soulful vocals overlaid. Gallant came out looking mighty dapper in a white suit, ready to entertain the crowd. And he didn’t stop, running from side to side of the stage, dancing, only stopping to feel the emotion with a hand laid across his head.
What we soon discovered was Gallant was a perfect pairing with Sufjan. While dropping pulsing beats, he chooses more of a minimalist approach to his synths, letting the beat and his voice take over the listener. Not all that different from Sufjan experimenting in synths and a little R&B himself. By the end of the night it was clear why Gallant was the chosen one to open up on this tour (more about that below). Often it’s a risk to have an opener so much more upbeat than the headliner itself, showing a true confidence in Sufjan’s live show, there was no worry about being upstaged. And rightfully so. But with Gallant’s latest single “Weight In Gold” being blessed by Zane Lowe and premiered on his very first Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio Show, and an EP to follow, it’s clear that Gallant is a rising star, and Sufjan has chosen to spread Gallant’s gospel.
Known more for their Broadway shows, ballet, concerts, educational shows, family performances, and opera instead of the indie concerts we are used to, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre was the perfect setting for Sufjan Stevens. A beautiful venue with acoustics on point, and seats to shut up, sit down (one of the few shows you will hear me cheer for seats), and be engulfed into Sufjan’s roller coaster of a world.
Sufjan Stevens by all accounts, in one fell swoop can inspire musicians that aren’t willing to settle for the norm, while also driving that musician to quit altogether, because after all, how could they ever reach this level, how could they ever be this talented. It’s truly inspiring watching him build his songs. With such a highly personal album, Carrie & Lowell, amongst others in his repertoire, Sufjan is able to build to the highest climax. Whether you have experienced something similar to what Sufjan has gone through in these songs, it’s impossible not to feel the power behind them. They immediately drive you to a sad place, all while providing the hope needed to go on. Sufjan pushes all the buttons, literally and figuratively, driving out all the emotions that ail you.
One of the things you realize watching Sufjan live is just how good of a producer he is. The songwriting is something that will always stick out, but watching him bring these songs together live, brings everything up a notch. You realize he knows how to perfectly place the synths without taking over the songs, which he even gets a little groove on when he hits those, even in some of the saddest songs. A spaced out instrumental was entrapping with the disco ball lights and psychedelics Sufjan was throwing in. At times it appears as though he is barely singing into the mic, but his voice comes out strong and clear. It’s all
placed together to make cohesive songs that’s aren’t the same without each calculated piece. Sure there have been some killer remixes made out of some of these songs, but Carrie & Lowell as an album works together in perfect harmony.
The setlist itself was naturally Carrie & Lowell heavy. These songs came alive in Cobb that night, a little louder, bigger beats, while still an emotional bliss. “All of Me Wants All of You” was an acoustic basket of feelings that every person in
this venue experienced. “Fourth of July” hit an absolutely epic climax of emotions. If only there was a live recording of this moment to relive. This one was next level live. Next they went into “No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross”, gorgeous. “Carrie & Lowell” soon came up with stunning harmonies that built into something not heard on the record, but live in that instance.
After ending with a “Blue Bucket of Gold” and bowing to the appreciative Atlanta crowd, the
band came back out with “Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois” from the fan favorite Illinois album. Next Sufjan picked up the banjo on “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” off of 2003’s Michigan. Sufjan even acknowledged: “even my happy strumming songs are all about death”, poking fun with the crowd that have kept with him throughout what should be a rather depressing set. Sufjan said “I’ve been trying to incorporate more upbeat songs, not so much about death in the encore,” but most of his songs are about death. Playing more from Illinois, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Casimir Pulaski Day”, which he said “this is about a Polish American war hero, oh but it’s also very sad”, you realize another amazing talent he has: the ability to become
completely lost into the songs while playing, but not so lost that he loses sight of the fact that he is there to have fun and entertain. But yeah most of his songs are well, about death. He said “Sharing this experience with everyone is what’s getting me through, especially sharing the stage with my friends” and then he introduced the band, his compadres. Finally hitting on “Chicago”, a song I was personally hoping to hear, they could have ended right there, and all would have been well and complete, a magical experience.
There was one last treat in store. Sufjan just couldn’t leave you riddled in sadness, instead a big picture of Drake hit the background, Gallant came back on stage and Cobb Energy danced to “Hotline Bling”, a current chart topping song I’m told that everyone wants to remix. A few days before this show videos started circulating from previous shows of Sufjan covering this hit. Being there, hearing his sincerity and acknowledging his sad tunes, this is no publicity stunt or anything ridiculous like that, it’s Sufjan having fun, all part of
his plan of putting together an amazing live show. It’s the reason Gallant, who at first seemed out of place, opened up, riling up the crowd’s energy for Sufjan to take ahold of, providing a similarly heightened energy as Gallant, just in a different form. It’s a carefully curated experience by Sufjan Stevens and his talented band and crew. Now that that’s off the bucket list, the only question is when can I see Sufjan Stevens again?
All Photos By Mike Gerry:
Watch “Chicago” from Cobb Energy Centre:
Watch “Blue Bucket of Gold” at Cobb Energy Centre:
- Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)
- Death With Dignity
- Should Have Known Better
- All of Me Wants All of You
- The Only Thing
- Fourth of July
- No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
- Drawn to the Blood
- Carrie & Lowell
- I Want to Be Well
- Blue Bucket of Gold
- Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
- For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
- John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
- Casimir Pulaski Day
- Chicago(Acoustic Version)
- Hotline Bling(Drake cover) (with Gallant)
Credit: Setlist FM