sufjan stevens @ the edinburgh playhouse

Ben Ashbridge

Last Sunday night I saw the best gig I’ve ever seen in my life. 

I knew within two songs that it would be, and judging from the rapturous five minute standing ovation he received before his encore and at the end of his final song, there wasn’t one audience member who would disagree with me. The artist was, of course, Sufjan Stevens, on the first date of his British tour in Edinburgh to celebrate the release of his seventh, and probably most personal, studio album. 

Carrie and Lowell, named in honour of his mother and stepfather, is inspired, most notably, by the death of his mother, along with his childhood family vacations, and is a remarkable insight into Stevens’ pain and experiences following his mother’s passing. Hauntingly beautiful, stripped back indie folk, yet in a way that makes relaxation an impossibility when listening to it, the album outstrips Stevens’ previous albums by some margin, and with his reputation as a brilliant live performer I entered the Edinburgh Playhouse with high expectations, normally a precursor for disappointment. But Sufjan not only was as good as I thought he’d be, he was on a whole other planet. 

Both Sufjan and his band were paradigms of instrument-swapping, genre-defying brilliance, as they transitioned seamlessly throughout the show, often switching instruments during the songs themselves. Stevens at times encapsulated the sound of his album, Death with Dignity amongst others being played by just him, alone with a guitar, whilst other tracks were completely transformed into electronic anthems with Sufjan and his five-piece band building up to huge crescendos, Should Have Known Better standing out in particular. His band showed phenomenal ability on the synth, with grand pianos and electric guitars, even swapping drummers on occasion, whilst The National’s Bryce Dessner strummed away on guitar, showing the kind of esteem Stevens holds in the music world.

For one and a half hours, Carrie and Lowell was performed to perfection, not in the way it sounds on the album, but transformed into a startlingly energetic, almost incomprehensibly good live performance. And then, when you thought it was all over, his half hour encore, too long in any other scenario, was packed with his classics, ending with an unbelievable rendition of Chicago from 2005’s album Illinoise. As I walked away, scarcely able to process what I’d seen, all those around me seemed to concur in muted awe. The best show I’ve ever seen is gone from Scotland now, as Stevens moves south on his tour, pushing towards London and Europe. Gone but never forgotten.