Live Review: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell Tour
Cleveland Masonic Auditorium / Thursday, April 16 2015 By Abbie Doyle, Editorial Director
Basking in the focused glow of multiple spotlights, Sufjan Stevens stood alone on the stage of Cleveland’s Masonic Auditorium with an acoustic guitar in his hands and somberly sang the ending lines to “Eugene,” the fifth track on his latest album Carrie and Lowell.
“Now I’m drunk and afraid / Wishing the world would go away / What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?”
Five songs before this, Stevens and his accompanying band walked on the stage, picked up their instruments and began to play Carrie & Lowell--the entire album from beginning to end, with a few changes in the order of songs. Without a “Hello, Cleveland,” a how-do-you-do, a wave of the hand, nada. The group of musicians just took to the stage, the unbelievably incredible light show began and five songs later the audience audibly assured Stevens that yes, we were hearing him.
About five seconds into “Death With Dignity,” the opening track on Carrie & Lowell, the audience knew what it was in for. This entire performance was going to be a tribute, a live mourning, a funeral rite. Sufjan Stevens was saying goodbye to his mother, whose passing inspired the entirety of Carrie & Lowell. We collectively held our breath as we witnessed one individual mourn his mother’s death for the umpteenth time.
Early in the set, I wondered if the ritual ever got old. How many times can you say goodbye to the same person before it stops upsetting you, before it feels like a choreographed performance? If that point does exist, it is evident that Stevens has not reached it yet. And maybe he never will.
“Eugene” began in a friendly enough manner. Stevens even made a joke with the lines, “The man who taught me to swim / He couldn’t quite say my first name / Like a father he led community water on my head / And he called me ‘Subaru.’”
The audience laughed, and I could sense that Stevens was enjoying his reception but was still very much far from having fun. When he came to the song’s conclusion, everyone was--literally or metaphorically--on the edge of their seat, reacting to the tension Stevens was creating. I could feel that we wanted him to know we were hearing what he was singing, even if the song was not originally written for our ears. My sympathies were on call, and if I could have reached out to Stevens and offered him any type of comfort or assurance, I would have. I believe most people in that auditorium would have done the same.
This heaviness did not cease for even a moment. With a carefully designed light display--varying from soft, bittersweet beach tones to raging epileptic convulsions of color--and an unbelievable sound system, the audience was trapped in Stevens’ performance. I repeatedly considered the thought of my own mother dying, something I do my best to avoid, generally.
But there was no ignoring of this fact of life, especially at the conclusion of “Fourth of July.” The final line is, “We’re all gonna die,” but in a booming--very nearly overwhelming--explosion of sounds and colors, Stevens and his ensemble repeated this fact at least 15 times. Perhaps desensitizing us was his goal; perhaps he is still trying to desensitize himself to this reality.
He spoke briefly about his feelings as he gives these performances. It was fairly funny--he played the first 10 tracks of the 11 track album before saying a word to the audience. When he said hello, there was a quiet roar of enthusiastic response. I think we overwhelmed him, as he quickly became quiet and began to play a song from one of his EPs.
It wasn’t until a few more songs that he began to speak to us again. He spoke of the seasons of life, and the way that, yes, seasons do repeat themselves and life is cyclical, but each cycle is different as we experience, learn and grow. And sometimes, you experience a massive life change--such as the death of a loved one--that changes everything entirely. He created a parallel to the way humans shed their skin constantly yet remain the same.
They were insightful words from a man whose speaking voice is very different from his singing voice--the former is deep and even; the latter a high, sweet falsetto with a knack for delicate intricacies. Hearing him speak was nearly as powerful as watching his intense performance.
Sufjan and his fellow musicians played for nearly an hour and a half before leaving the stage. The crowd made a wildly loud demand for an encore, and within about three minutes the musicians were back. After their performance of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” Stevens joked, “Even going back to my darker songs, in this new context they seem lighter in comparison.”
Stevens introduced the woman whose vocals provided an incredibly beautiful harmony to his own, Dawn Landes, and then asked us an oddly silly question.
“Did you ever have that coach in high school or middle school junior varsity basketball, who was like a secondary coach and was always on the sidelines telling you things like, ‘Look alive out there!’? I could really use that guy right now.”
His performance certainly did not give me that impression. Regardless of what he feels internally--which is probably the residual depression and suicidal tendencies that are very present on Carrie and Lowell--his live act is an astounding, incredibly visceral experience for both the audience and performers. It was easily the most beautiful show I have ever seen, and I strangely feel as if I made a friend with Stevens. To anyone debating whether or not to fork over the money to catch Stevens on his 2015 tour--I cannot tell you enough that it is worth it. Sonically, visually, emotionally and metaphysically--it is worth it.