Sufjan Stevens performed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Wednesday in what was one of his final North American concerts in support of his latest album Carrie & Lowell.
Much like the aforementioned album, Stevens’ performance was solemn and emotionally-gripping throughout the two-hour show. Backed by a group of four multi-instrumentalists/vocalists, the acclaimed 40-year-old singer-songwriter focused primarily on Carrie & Lowell‘s material, most of which was inspired by his late mother and her relationship with his step-father. Stevens didn’t banter much with the audience during the main portion of the performance, keeping the focus on the songs’ lyrical and sonic elements. This approach drew the audience in, leaving most captivated by the sorrowful songs Stevens and company carefully crafted onstage. One of the most hard-hitting moments came as he stepped behind the piano to lead the album highlight “Fourth of July,” emphasizing the closing repeated line of “We’re all gonna die.” This poignant lyrical sentiment left the sold-out crowd in awe and filled the room with a universal silence before erupting into a wave of applause.
Stevens kept most of the Carrie & Lowell material, such as “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and “Death with Dignity,” close to their sonic origins. His vocals and guitar work were front and center with the accompanying musicians filling out the songs with light percussion, piano and guitar. He did embrace his more exuberant tendencies in the arrangements of a couple of tracks, with varying results. “Drawn to the Blood” featured added instrumentation that drowned out the delicate melody in his vocals, but the embrace of electronic sounds on “Blue Bucket of Gold” (which aligned it closer to the recently released remix of the song) made the the track stand out compared to the other new material.
Stevens went big a few more times in the set in the form of the Age of Adz standout “Vesuvius,” layered with a mix of electronics sounds that made it the “loudest” song of the night, and a long instrumental break, accompanied by a seizure-inducing light arrangement accented with two spinning disco balls hanging above the stage.
After the main portion of the show, Stevens returned for an encore, thanked the crowd for sitting through the despair of a “confused and conflicted folk singer,” and, in order to embrace the “tabernacle of music” that is the Ryman, performed five favorites from his catalog acoustically with he and the band on one mic.
As he went into Seven Swans‘ “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” Michigan‘s “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” and the Illinois highlights “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Casimir Pulaski Day,” crowd-members could be heard gasping with excitement. On this tour, Stevens has kept the Carrie & Lowell selections rather routine, but changes back-catalog selections night-to-night. Many audiences members came in knowing this and accepted that the songs they connected most with might not be performed that night. These surprise acoustic selections were the highlights to many audiences members’ evenings, in addition to Stevens’ and opener Gallant’s cover of “Hotline Bling,” which he selected to end the night on a happy note (and is just as fun as the YouTube clips make it out to be).
But before going into Drake’s latest hit, Stevens and company led a crowd-wide sing-a-long to his acclaimed ode to traveling, the beautifully pensive “Chicago.”
“The theme of my year has been touring and touring,” Stevens said. “My whole life has lead to this moment, and I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”