LIVE: Sufjan Stevens @ the Palace Theatre, 4/15/15

Review by Greg Haymes

When a singer-songwriter performs an entire album’s worth of musical meditations on death and loss, well, you expect the concert to be something of a downer. And alt-pop iconoclast Sufjan Stevens’ recent performance at Albany’s Palace Theatre certainly was no rock & roll dance party, as he played all of the songs from his brand new album, Carrie and Lowell, penned following the death of his estranged mother.

“What is that that song you sing for the dead?” he sang during “Death with Dignity,” the opening song of the show, following the wordless, largely instrumental intro, “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou).” But there was no one single answer. In fact, songs for the dead filled the first half of the concert, as Stevens and his backing quartet of multi-instrumentalists examined grief and mourning in all its many facets. The intensely personal songs plumbed the depths of emotional turmoil from guilt to despair to anger, and yet ultimately the concert was a glorious, deeply spiritual affirmation of life and faith.

He dealt frankly and nakedly with death, and yet discovered an underlying hope. It was, in one word, majestic.

Stevens is a masterful lyricist, balancing big ideas with small, everyday details that translate the personal to the universal. The song structures were almost folk-like in their seeming simplicity, and yet they were decorated with just enough twists to make them consistently intriguing from the Paul Simon-like “Eugene” to the electronica-spiked “All of Me Wants All of You,” as Stevens switched from guitar to piano, from ukulele to banjo throughout his two hours on stage.

The centerpiece of the two-hour show was the fragile, wounded, harrowing performance of “Fourth of July,” culminating in the repeated lyric, “We’re all going to die.”

Dark? Yeah, but there was also light in the encores of “Dress Looks Good on You” (with the lyric, “I can see a lot of life in you”) and the Coldplay-like pop of “Chicago.”

Kudos, too, go to the sound, lighting and projections personnel, who were each crucial in helping to make the evening’s experience both intimate and majestic.

Cold Specks – the Somali-Canadian singer-songwriter Laden Hussein and her three-piece band – won over the crowd with selections from her latest album, Neuroplasticity, and her bold brand of future-soul that seemed to draw equally from such diverse influences as Nina Simone and Joy Division.

Amy Biancolli’s review at Figuring Shit Out
Matt Rector’s review and photographs at Old School Record Review
Russo Millien’s review at The Albany Student Press
Bender Melon’s photographs at Sounding Stone
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “The stage stayed pretty dark all night during Sufjan Stevens’ show at the Palace Wednesday. Soft, dark, and shrouded in mystery — you never saw what anyone looked like. Stevens sang gentle, pretty pop tunes, but pop tunes that seemed more closely related to a haunted art museum than to radio play. Early in the show during ‘All of Me Wants All of You’ — his own song, not John Legend’s — he sang alone with his guitar. His band eventually seeped in, slowly. Using synthesizer and harmonizing with layers of angelic vocals, the song swelled into a wonderful, orchestral crescendo. There weren’t many climactic moments like this. Instead the night was mostly about intimacy and theater. And death. Stevens’ singing is a bit like Art Garfunkel’s. He is not interested in sounding masculine, instead he sings poetry — the words have at least equal weight to the melody.”

Redford (for Yia-Yia & Pappou)
Death With Dignity
Should Have Known Better
Drawn to the Blood
All of Me Wants All of You
Eugene (solo)
John My Beloved
The Only Thing
Fourth of July
No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
Carrie and Lowell
The Owl and the Tanager (solo)
For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Yipsilanti
In the Devil’s Territory
To Be Alone With You
Blue Bucket of Gold
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois (solo)
Dress Looks Nice On You
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

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