Sufjan Stevens’ last Adelaide show was a bombastic display of neon lights, longform electronica and outsider art, climaxing in a shower of balloons in epic 20 minute finale Impossible Soul. It was the kind of technicolour spectacle you’d expect more from the Flaming Lips over than a winsome folk auteur.
With Stevens returning on the back of his much sparer, almost entirely acoustic album Carrie & Lowell, it was clear this Adelaide Festival show would be a marked change of pace. Ngaiire opened with a disarming set, paring everything back to some booming 808s and backing vocals that gave her own pipes plenty of space to breathe. They quickly silenced the room. Her triple j hit Once got a huge response from its first recognizable notes, but unreleased track Fall Into My Arms was the high point, building from unadorned piano and voice to an enormous, emotive crescendo. Half an hour later Stevens took to a blackened stage, backed by old family home movie footage screened on church window-like columns. Working through Carrie & Lowell tip to toe, Stevens carefully translated the its achingly intimate subject matter to a large live setting. For a record that sounds very much like a guy in a bedroom working through a period of emotional upheaval while hunched over a microphone, the songs still resonated in a room of many hundreds. The folk heart of the album remained, but a few key embellishments helped place the songs within Stevens’ wider discography. All Of Me Wants All Of You was reworked from a lightly strummed, slightly selfish ditty to a simmering, beat driven, Age of Adz–style jam that peaked with an extended oscillating synth solo from Stevens. Album centerpiece Fourth Of July also grew into something much bigger, a rumbling grandiose epic that reframed the repeated line “we’re all going to die” from a tone of sober acceptance to something almost defiant. It would have sounded completely out of place on the album, but proved just the tonic onstage. After a brief foray into Age of Adz cuts Futile Devices and Vesuvius Stevens and band pirouetted off into a discordant, wordless piece of droning synths and wailing ambient noise to close the main set. A challenge, perhaps, for anyone whose experience of Stevens consisted primarily of ‘that nice song in the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack’, but a fascinating diversion for most others. Barely speaking for the majority of the set beyond a few ‘thank yous’, Stevens saved his first full sentence for the encore as he congratulated the crowd for being “troopers [for] sitting through a ceremony of death”. The light conversation proved a perfect circuit breaker from somber first section of the performance, as Stevens cracked up during a winding anecdote about reincarnated childhood pets that culminating in an exasperated Donald Trump reference. Huddled around a single microphone, his four piece band ran through satisfyingly sparse versions of old favourites like The Dress Looks Nice On You and For The Widows In Paradise.Two Illinois tracks, Casimir Pulaski Day (featuring a Thebbie-inclusive singalong) and Chicagoclosed the night, and while the broad orchestral brushstrokes of Stevens’ most famous album were AWOL, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who found the night lacking. 4.5 stars Sufjan Stevens performed at the Thebarton Theatre on Monday, February 29 adelaidefestival.com.au Images: Andreas Heuer