Sufjan Stevens, The Olympia, 18th May 2011

When Sufjan Stevens tickets went on sale, I didn’t bother getting tickets for some reason, and when I got around to thinking about going, tickets were long gone.  So I put it out of my mind until the morning of 18th May when I checked my Twitter and saw many excited tweets from Nialler9 and others, photos of Sufjan wearing massive angel wings, giant diamonds, sci-fi scenes and monkey hats, followed by an apology to anyone going to the following nights show, I knew I had to get tickets.  Checked with Niall if he wanted to go (he did) and by lunchtime I had found a seller on Toutless, and Emmy was going to the ball!

Arriving in The Olympia, slightly late thanks to The Queen and her state dinner across the road in Dublin castle, Sufjan Stevens had just come on stage.  There was a black, mesh screen in front of the stage so you could only see outlines while Seven Swans, the music behind, built up to a big crescendo.  The screen lifted to reveal the band, Sufjan in the middle wearing huge angel wings.  I love angel wings!  I was slightly disappointed when he took them off after that first song, but that disappointment soon faded as the spectacle began to unfold.

There is a model of language teaching known as VAK which categorises learners as either Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic.  Visual learners have a preference for seeing and learn by looking at pictures, viewing slides or mind maps. Auditory learners best learn through listening to lectures, discussions for example while kinaesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing projects or experiments say.  In the classroom, teachers are encouraged to bear in mind that learners need various stimuli to engage all of them.  Sufjan Stevens, whether he knows it or not (and I’d say he does) is a master of this.  His live show caters for all three.

Visually, this was a feast for the eyes.  There was a giant screen backdrop with paintings, photos and graphics.  There are about 10 people on stage, singing, dancing, playing drums, trombones.  From the angel wings, it moves onto the whole band dressed in some form of neon, wearing neon sunglasses.  Sufjan has adorned his guitar with neon tape spelling out ROYAL, which initially I thought was something to do with the Queen but will explain later and there was even neon tape in the bell of each trombone.  This was lit up with black lights.  It just looked great.  On went the show (for over two hours) with various props being produced such as a giant diamond with Sufjan in front, wearing a diamond mask, confetti, a monkey hat, a long-haired, bearded guy playing a casio keyboard into the mic and at the end, giant balloons for the audience to punch around.

Sufjan himself described the sound of his music at the beginning as apocalyptic.  The songs would start out slow and build up to big noisy climaxes.  After a few of these Tron-esque sci-fi sounding epics, he would produce a folk song on an acoustic guitar to bring us back to earth.  He moved on to showcase some of his “cosmic pop” songs.  The encore was some of the old Sufjan, the Sufjan I was always more familiar with.  He ended with Chicago, by which stage I had forgotten he had ever written that.  It just hadn’t occurred to me that it was by the same artist while everything else was going on.  Between songs, there were rambling explanations and anecdotes.  He told how he used to see himself as a narrator and would begin songs by writing lyrics.  Recently he has preferred to begin with the sound, possibly leading to the different direction of his music now.  He told of his inspiration, an artist named Royal who suffered from schizophrenia which led to an obsession with outer space and alien invasions.  It’s clear to everyone that his music has taken a change of course, and it was interesting to hear his own explanation for this.

There was a general movement on stage from the backing singers and Sufjan himself.  At one stage he even paused to explain one of the laws of Physics which says that for every action there must be an opposite reaction (must get Niall to fill me in on the details of that one) and told us that his music and movement throughout that song would demonstrate this.

Sufjan calls himself a craftsman but there is a lot more to what he is doing than simply crafting.  He is a genius, especially when it comes to throwing a big party like he did in The Olympia.

The photos included in this post were taken by Peter Neill.  Check out his website and flickr.

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