Gig review: Sufjan Stevens, Edinburgh

WHEN Fergus Linehan unveiled his debut EIF programme earlier this year, did he anticipate that a concert by a cult US indie folk musician would be the first event to sell out? A bunch of disappointed Sufjan Stevens fans certainly didn’t, but those who snaffled the not inconsiderable tally of 3,000 tickets contributed to the somewhat reverential atmosphere in the theatre as this unlikely star turn of the EIF music programme presented a beautifully stylised new show themed around his latest album, played in its entirety, almost in track order.
Sufjan Stevens, the unlikely star of the EIF. Picture: Eoin CareySufjan Stevens, the unlikely star of the EIF. Picture: Eoin Carey
Sufjan Stevens, the unlikely star of the EIF. Picture: Eoin Carey

Carrie & Lowell is a gossamer folk pop collection inspired by the death of his mother and the step-father with whom he set up his own label, Asthmatic Kitty, a starkly personal collection in comparison to his playful concept albums inspired by US States and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, or the alternative Christmas-themed songs he produces every festive season.

Stevens writes lovingly of his parents with the melodic persuasion and lyrical dexterity of Paul Simon and sings with the breathy vulnerability of Art Garfunkel. His vocals were heavily doused in echo effect throughout, all the better for his fatalistic anguish to resonate around the auditorium. What could otherwise have come across as nine-stone weakling singer/songwriter fare was dressed up throughout with a fair bit of dynamic finessing from his band, bolstered by a cameo from his fellow EIF guest Bryce Dessner of The National.

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So for every naked acoustic heartbreaker, there was an ambient wash of synthesizer, the shimmer of percussion and tremolo guitar or airy fairy exchange of cooing to create a more expansive sound.

This strangely soothing catharsis was accompanied by footage of serene landscapes and some unexpectedly affecting Super 8 home movie footage, and atmospherically lit throughout, with the stage bathed in a warm orange glow, Stevens picked out by a moody spotlight, then brightly dappled by the spinning mirrorballs which accompanied the mesmeric analogue electronica crescendo.

The whole presentation engendered a far more visceral response from the audience than one might have expected. Stevens waited until the encore to puncture the solemnity, crack some witticisms, play some old songs, throw in some banjo and trombone for a change and corpse his way through The Dress Looks Nice On You, providing some light relief after delivering what, in retrospect, had been a heavy, though never heavygoing, confessional.