With just one spotlight overhead, Sufjan Stevens began “Redford (for Yia-Yia and Pappou)” with his head nodded toward his piano last Thursday, welcoming his band members to the stage in succession. As the first notes trembled into existence, I was reminded of the way my grandfather’s hand fit into mine the day before he died; so weak, but almost completely free of Parkinson’s grasp and a tiny, quick squeeze, the same that is elicited by the haunted voices that began to rise from the stage.
Stevens’ most recent album, Carrie & Lowell, is a portrait of loss, an exploration into the complicated relationship between mother and child and the feelings that remain following her death. I felt instantly akin from those first few notes, exploring a loss that I haven’t fully grasped, even now. My grandfather was my biggest supporter and while Stevens’ relationship with his mother might not have been as supportive as the one between my grandfather and I, I was left to marvel at how he finds the strength to explore the loss every day through his music. I can barely pull myself from bed some days. After witnessing it live, I can’t help but think each night, while emotionally exhausting, must give him a small release from the grief that can (and does) shroud even the most brilliant days in a fog.
As the twinkling pizzicato of “Death with Dignity” began, the lights warmed, showing the singer center stage with his menagerie of instruments and band members arced around him, a support system that extended to the hushed audience that hung on every breath. As Stevens delicately sang, “Again I’ve lost my strength completely, oh be near me,” I mouthed the words, eyes brimming with tears. “Should Have Known Better” followed and again I was reminded of a goodbye I never got to say before my grandfather slipped from consciousness. Surprisingly I was bathed in a peaceful air, stemming from the gorgeous stage lighting that created a panel of windows behind Stevens, overlooking a calming shoreline.
As “John My Beloved” began, a subtle shift of lights paired with the crescendo of the band. Stevens glided across the stage, perhaps lost in his head, a bit remiss of time and space. Through the panel lights desert rocks became visible, shifting into white lights as a rumble built from the stage. “Fourth of July” showcased a haunted whisper, growing in veracity as purple lights swirled to life, before erupting into a prismatic anthem that charged forth with the drum’s racing heartbeat. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” featured the most fragile harmonies, ebbing and flowing around each other as they rose together. Title track “Carrie & Lowell” gave the audience a peek at home videos and memories.
“We go through so many seasons in life and we think they’re dictated by the tides…you always think you have it figured out and some major event occurs and you feel like it catches you off guard. And it’s the new season, the new cycle,” Stevens explained as he tuned up between “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” and “In the Devil’s Territory.”
Those two songs were followed by “To Be Alone with You” and a personal story about Stevens’ thoughts on Lent and the strangeness he found in thinking about coming from dust and returning unto it, and how dust is simply skin cells. “But it got me through the day, so whatever it takes,” he added as an aside, before dedicating “Sister” to his own, Megan.
“Blue Bucket of Gold” and “Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois” finished his set and left the crowd erupting into a standing ovation that brought the band back to the stage for a four song encore.
“Even the darkest songs seem like a light after playing that album. How is John Wayne Gacy, Jr. an upper?” Stevens mused after the song’s completion. “The Dress Looks Nice on You” greeted the audience next, to a few yips of excitement, but as the first few notes of “Chicago” spilled forth, they hollered with joy.
I stepped out into the night after this show with an overwhelming sense of peace and warmth filling me as I raised my eyes to the stars and a slight smile was born upon my lips as I recounted my childhood memories with my grandfather. Experiencing Sufjan Stevens live on this tour isn’t a light affair. What takes place—from the beautifully orchestrated music to the stunning visuals—is a direct view into the humanity that is so often disregarded in a world that seemingly cannot exist without a phone in hand, scrolling through newsfeeds and relationships. Turn your phone off for one night. Let yourself be immersed in the vulnerability that Sufjan Stevens shares with you, a vulnerability that exposes such a deep strength. Go to his show and listen attentively to what’s taking place on stage—and within your own head and heart. I promise Facebook can wait, but an experience like this cannot.
Enjoy this playlist of the 4/16 show: