Live Reviews - Reviews

Sufjan Stevens @ The Helix, Dublin


Once impressively prolific, new music by Sufjan Stevens comes along at a much slower pace these days, so the anticipation for tonight’s show, the first of two sold out shows at The Helix and the opening date his European tour, has been building for a while. After an support set from bluesy mother and son duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, Sufjan and his unassuming looking band take to the stage, and it’s immediately clear that we’re in for a very different show from when he last visited these shores four years ago.

For a start, we’re all seated, not to mention he and his four musicians are clad in normal clothes with not a costume or a dancer in sight, but given the stripped back nature of new album Carrie & Lowell, that’s hardly surprising. In fact, that album is played in its entirety tonight, and after opening with Michigan’s piano-led instrumental ‘Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)’, ten of Carrie & Lowell’s eleven tracks are dished out in a row. It’s a bold move, one which could be risky were it not such a strong album, but given the warm reception it’s received this year it’s no surprise that the audience is hanging on every note.

Rather than his usual elaborate stage set up, video screens at the back of the stage show various pieces of footage to accompany most songs, and with the new album largely inspired by his mother’s death, it’s particularly moving when old home movie footage accompanies the album’s title track. The set shifts effortlessly between quieter acoustic instrumentation and louder electronic elements and the sound is crystal clear, with none of the dreaded sound problems that plagued Modest Mouse’s show in the same venue earlier this summer. It’s a slick and professional set during which Stevens doesn’t say a word, aside from having to stop and ask a bandmate for a lyrical cue during ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’, but his ability to pick up exactly where he left off is impressive. After a trio of older songs, including set highlight ‘Sister’, ‘Blue Bucket Of Gold’ finishes the main set, climaxing with a lengthy atmospheric drone that builds until you can feel it rumble in your chest.


Returning with his trusty banjo for a generous six song encore, the atmosphere immediately becomes more relaxed as Sufjan engages in some laid-back stage chatter and runs through some old favourites. Another lyrical cue is required during an otherwise tear-inducing ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ and he endearingly makes light of having to ask several band members and a technician which key he’s supposed to be in for ‘To Be Alone With You’, but it only adds to the feeling of intimacy, making The Helix feel half its size, while the generous helping of material from 2004’s Seven Swans is a treat for those of us who still regard it as his most underrated record.

With multifaceted artists like Sufjan, where his setup can vary from one tour to the next, it’s easy to miss certain elements of previous shows, so when tonight’s stripped back version of ‘Chicago’ reveals itself, one can’t help but reminisce about the sheer unbridled joy of the same song on 2011’s Age Of Adz tour, where it came complete with dancers, balloons and a mass singalong, but that feeling soon melts away as tonight’s quieter rendition, closer in style to the acoustic version from 2006 outtakes album The Avalanche, proves to be a similarly effective set closer, a fittingly low key end to what’s been, by his standards, a more low key show. Who knows what kind of show he’ll put on next time he visits us. Cathal McBride

Photos by Brian Mulligan