Review : Sufjan Stevens in The Olympia Theatre, Dublin

Personally, May 2011 will have been one hell of a month as regards gigs attended. Folk artists, electronica, live experimental soundtracks performed by eccentric German composers, outright rock and roll : a number of genres would be covered. Roger Waters performing The Wall in The O2 next Tuesday night was always going to be the spectacle, the concept album dreamed up and made reality by a solo visionary but brought to life and performed to an amazed audienced in all its pomp and theatrics. Who or what else could even compare? Step forward Mr. Sufjan Stevens.

Tuesday night has been covered by plenty of reviewers already (see Sweet Oblivion and/or Nialler9) but it is the man from Michigan's second appearance at the Olympia Theatre that is covered below.

Apparently Sufjan, a Persian name, means "comes with a sword". On Wednesday a more suitable interpretation may have been "comes with choreographed dance routines, 3-D special effects, massive light show, nutty backing singers, neon costumes, spaceships, aliens, balloons, streamers and anything else that may appear in a childs dream".

Opening with "Seven Swans", all seemed as it should be as the indie-folk star played the introduction to the title track of the 2004 album on a banjo with only his face angellically lit in a single spotlight. It was not to last long as, merely ninety seconds in, the drums crashed in and the darkness was withdrawn to reveal a ten-piece band, complete with brass section, all dressed in custom-made illuminous jumpsuits. It was not much longer before majestically white swan-wings (of considerable wing-span I may add) appeared on the backs of both backing-singers and Sufjan himself. Quite a climax for the first song of the evening.

It was from hereonin that material from 2010's The Age Of Adz took centre stage. There would be several occasions during the night that Stevens would take time out to speak of exactly what he was thinking or at least attempting to achieve throughout both the songwriting and recording phase of his latest long-player. Experimentation with sound and rhythm which involved quite a lot of trial and error (I have this image of the guy simply sitting in a studio twisting knobs and pushing buttons to his hearts content) before eventually carefully fitting a pop melody over and around the beats is explained to us as the strategy employed to achieve something different and avoid plodding down the same old garden paths as he could so easily have done. A return to a more child-like mentality of thinking and acting, free of the conditioning we all eventually experience as we are groomed for adulthood. The muse for this thinking was Royal Robertson.

*Video from L'Olympia in Paris

A sign-painter, Royal was born and died in Louisiana but suffered badly from paranoid-scizophrenia resulting in a separation from his wife and a life of lonely reclusion. Retreating into himself, visions of spacecraft, aliens, gods and apocalyptic scenarios became his world which became reality through his graphic creations which colourfully came to life via signs, paintings, comic-books and any other sort of medium he could get his hands on. Sufjan admitted being both incredibly intrigued and moved by the catch-22 situation Royal had found himself in struggling so badly in his personal life but living the artists dream of complete boundary-free artistic expression. Royal died in 1997.

It is imagery from Royal's work that provides the backdrop for many of the songs on the night (as well as the artwork for the album) accompanied by a matrix-like 3-D effect created by a transparent screen lowered in front of the performers as well as choreographed dancing from both backing singers and Sufjan himself which he himself makes a point of introducing before "Too Much". "I Walked", "Get Real Get Right", "Vesuvius" (the fire and flame effect created by the two screens during track 8 from The Age Of Adz was pretty impressive) and pretty much every other track from The Age Of Adz got an outing with a couple of tracks such as "Heirloom" pulled from the All Delighted People EP. The only break in the main show is for the folky "Futile Devices".

It is odd to think that the two hour plus show consisted only of eleven songs but it makes sense when you consider that the pre-encore set was ended with the twenty-five minute behemoth "Impossible Soul". How my attention was not only maintained throughout the entire song but peeked is beyoned me as every element of the night was brought to a climax with the eleven folks on stage simply going ballistic. Monkey hats, backing singers climbing from the main stage and up into the circle, big colourful bouncing Flaming Lips balloons, confetti, lazers, melody, musicianship, energy and enthusiasm were all bundled up into one big ball and hurled with every last drop of strength at the Olympia audience.

If the folks that displayed their dissatisfaction at Bob Dylan way back when he traded in his folk-singer badge for an electric guitar with boos and Judas taunts were in attendance they would have burned Sufjan and co. at the stake.

Everyone knew there would be an encore but just in case the Olympia audience made as much noise as they possibly could to ensure the hero of the night would return and return he did with an encore of "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "Chicago" from 2005's Illinois. I am not sure how anyone could top this. Rog, you are under some serious pressure to perform next week. Some serious pressure indeed.

Full Setlist :
Seven Swans
Too Much
Age of Adz
I Walked
Get Real Get Right
All For Myself
I Want To Be Well
Futile Devices
Impossible Soul

John Wayne Gacy, Jr.