The Olympia Theatre was the last venue to play host to Sufjan Stevens back in May 2011. That day stands out clearly in the Detroit-native’s mind as he explains that the Queen had come to visit Dublin that day meaning there was a host of so-called important people like “the Prime Minister’s son” at the show which made him a nervous wreck. “You’re more important!” roars one particularly ardent fan in reply, and based on the deathly silence that filled The Helix during his performance on Friday night, it’s hard to disagree, at least for two hours.
If 2011’s show in The Olympia was a celebration of life, Friday night was a celebration of death. Stevens wrote ‘Carrie & Lowell’ after his estranged mother Carrie passed in 2012 and it’s that album which takes up the majority of Friday night’s setlist. The tone is set early on as Stevens plays the hauntingly beautiful Redford(for Yia-Yia and Pappou) from 2003’s ‘Michigan’ before launching straight into the new material in the form of the delicate Death With Dignity as old home videos are projected on the split screens that form the stage’s backdrop.
What follows is a seemingly never-ending assault on the emotions of those in attendance. There are tears during Eugene as the sadness-tinged line “I just wanted to be near you” tugs hard on the heartstrings. The transition from despair to anger as Fourth Of July breaks down into a chorus of “We’re all gonna die” is accompanied by a light show reminiscent of the type you would see at Shakespeare’s Globe as Macbeth begins to lose his mind. The tension is punctured an hour in as, halfway through recent single No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross, Sufjan utters his first words of the night. “What is it?” he mumbles to multi-instrumentalist Dawn Landes as he blanks on the lyrics causing a ripple of laughter to spread across the room, or was it just a collective exhalation of breath from the stunned audience?
The reprieve from the aforementioned emotional onslaught is short-lived, however. The job of a live music journalist is to transport their readers into the venue and to allow them experience the gig vicariously through the writer’s words. There are moments, however, that are so beyond description, that attempting to do so will inevitably fail to do it justice. The fifteen-minute long rendition of Blue Bucket Of Gold was this writer’s first time facing that dilemma. The combination of the airy, elegant lyrics and a sublime, synth and bass-laden breakdown with a disco ball-led light show that defies description, resulted in what is most likely the most beautiful, ethereal experience the Helix has ever witnessed. (Nope, not even close to doing it justice.)
The ensuing standing ovation lasted the entirety of the break before the show’s encore began and may have continued long into the night had Sufjan and his band not re-appeared over five minutes later. The encore delves into Stevens’ impressive back catalogue as the likes of The Dress Looks Nice On You, Casmir Pulaski Day and Futile Devices are stripped back to beautiful effect. The duo of To Be Alone With You and Chicago close proceedings as gently as they began. With his show, Sufjan Stevens has created an audio-visual experience that will be seared into the minds of all those who witness it. He is truly an artist.