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Sufjan Stevens has made a mixed bag of albums. He’s not your cookie cutter artist; instead each album is loving crafted with it’s own unique flavour and texture. It was with this in mind that I was so interested to attend his recent performance at the Michael Fowler center. Carrie and Lowell, his most recent dish, is not one I’d expected him to tour with. It’s so personal, almost rustic in comparison to his previous works, with a subject matter so emotional that I figured it would have been too difficult to perform live.
Boy, was I wrong. I wasn’t expecting him to drastically alter his base ingredients to a degree that achieved such a fulfilling performance. With a scant five member band (comprised of the members who I lovingly named the hermit, egg, cutie patootie, James Blake-ish, and Suffy), each with a vast array of talents (switching seamlessly between piano, guitar, drums, synths and horns), they managed to create a large wall of sound—at moments I almost forgot that this was originally an acoustic-guitar based album. With free jazz breakdowns, a ten minute synth-based noise segment, it was made very clear, very fast that Sufjan had added some special sauce to this set that was definitely not on the album.
The initial question I asked myself though: did his set need to be this way, or was it simply adding erroneous sauce to an already amazing dish? I found Carrie and Lowell to be so moving on a personal level that initially I was put off by how drastic the alteration was. It was not at all what I was expecting, and my initial reaction was shock. I came to the gig expecting to be weeping (as the tissues in my pocket will attest to), but instead I was treated to a powerful, electronic, experimental performance. While it was still a moving experience, it felt as though it had lost some of it’s personal touch, and it didn’t feel quite as impactful as I was expecting.
But I wasn’t disappointed. After the initial shock wore off, it became clear that this was the best way to present the album in a live format. It gave the audience something to move to, something to listen to. It was moving that Sufjan was willing to change something that no doubt caused him a lot of pain to make, to help make this concert a more enjoyable experience for those who had decided to come and see him.
Sufjan’s performance was like a burger with bacon on it. Sure, the burger doesn’t necessarily need the bacon, and its inclusion definitely changes the taste. Some will think this change is good, some will think it’s bad. The truth is it’s objectively neither, it’s just different. And change is something we shouldn’t be afraid of or reject. We should appreciate it for what it’s worth. If you came into this concert without knowing anything about Sufjan, you would undeniably have had a great time listening to the performance. If you came wanting to listen to Carrie and Lowell, you might have felt slightly disappointed, but I implore you to think otherwise. Sufjan’s offering was one of the most heartfelt, honest, and enjoyable performances I’ve seen from an artist in a very long time.