Sufjan Stevens’s show at the Palace Theatre last Friday was breathtaking, devastating, brutally intimate and cathartic. Carrie and Lowell, his album-length tribute to his late mother, was performed in its entirety, already a classic in the eyes of his audience. Some of the songs remained faithful to their recorded versions, some (“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”) somehow managed to be even more desolate, others (“All Of Me Wants All Of You”) were transformed entirely. Backed by a quartet of multi instrumentalists (including Brooklyn-songwriter Dawn Landes), Stevens breathed new life and insight into his most personal work yet. Throughout the night, flawlessly executed light and video design only added to the performance.
The group took the stage to the rising tide of “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou”) before launching into the new material. He didn’t say a word to us for the first half of the night, tenderly and methodically working through the new record roughly in order, occasionally choking up on some of the lines. “Fourth of July” was riveting, the disruptive seismic drone from the studio version moved to the forefront. All Delighted People’s “The Owl & the Tanager” was adopted into the album sequence before he broke the spell and told an amusing story of his childhood understanding of death (and how his college job in a waste treatment facility helped him reconcile it).
From there, he played a run of older material, with a bare-bones “Sister” and “For the Widows of Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” proving the highlights. He closed the main set with “Blue Bucket of Gold,” which followed its predicted trajectory before suddenly veering into a ten-minute rising crescendo, accompanied by sparkling mirror balls and blinding visuals. Landes sat on the stage floor running her voice through a bevy of effects pedals while the rest of the quintet pushed higher and higher before letting down into a soft afterglow. This was the most unexpected (and most impressive) performance of the evening.
The roaring standing ovation lasted until Sufjan returned to the piano for “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL,” the first Illinois material he treated is to. A pair of pitch-perfect Seven Swans cuts followed, “To Be Alone With You” draped its majesty over the hushed crowd. After a last word of thanks, the band jumped into the spectacular pomp of “Chicago” to close the night. All things go, all things go.
I would be remiss not to mention the opening set by Cold Specks from Montreal, which would have overshadowed a lesser headliner. Her gospel-strong voice and electrifying lyrics were captivating. Much of the set was drawn from last year’s horribly underrated Neuroplasticity, with “Old Knives” and “Absisto” proving particularly brilliant. I was left with chills when she sang the final verse of closer “Blank Maps” off-mic before repeating “hands up, don’t shoot, I can’t breathe” to the same tune. It is rare that a full night of music is perfect start to finish. This was one of those nights.
Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)
Death With Dignity
Should Have Known Better
Drawn to the Blood
All of Me Wants All of You
John My Beloved
The Only Thing
Fourth of July
No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
Carrie & Lowell
The Owl & the Tanager
In the Devil’s Territory
For the Widows of Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
Blue Bucket of Gold
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
The Dress Looks Nice On You
To Be Alone With You