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Concert Review: Sufjan Stevens

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01 November 2005. King’s College London.

They say dancing about architecture is a bit like writing about music. This is a way people with beards and glinting eyes like to say both things are pretty difficult. If I had to dance about the architecture at King’s College London’s student union venue, I think I’d do so with a sledgehammer in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. The paintbrush because the walls are all blue, dark and oppressive, and the sledgehammer because last night at the Sufjan Stevens’ gig, we were crammed in like sardines in a collapsed star.

As such, there was no room for dancing, and even if there had been, mine would have been a largely pointless dance. Why would you redecorate with one hand what you are about to destroy with the other? But then, that was kind of what this gig was all about.

Sufjan’s special guest support was My Brightest Diamond, a waif-like band named for a waif-like girl: Shara Worden. She opened with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” Bird flying high, she sang like an archangel, eyes bright, continental and incisive, calling down a heavy cloud of silence as the first line of melody trailed from her lip.

She packed so much soul, influence, and musicality into her vocal we all, unequivocally, knew how she felt by the first headshaking chorus, even if we couldn’t hear the backup band that was clearly throwing impressive shapes behind her in her head. She pipped and squeaked interesting scales with Bjorkish charm and her dainty flicks of vibrato and off-mike drama held your attention. Jarringly, she played guitar like an awkward schoolboy, fingers bent uncomfortably into indie-jazz shapes, awkwardly flunking and scratching strings.

But what she lacked in technique she made up for with inventiveness and show, shoving a biro under the guitar’s bridge for one of her songs to make it twinkle like a distant harp, and scraping out a rhythm on the headstock for an inventive reworking of “Jeff Buckley.” She sang two songs in French and was backed by Sufjan’s guest quartet, Iskra. It was a well-crafted mini-set, self-consciously rough around the edges but nevertheless mostly cutting.

Shara, who sings on Sufjan’s newest record, Illinoise, then played guitar with his band in a communal joining together. Coming at the end of a sell-out frenzy tour, these last two dates were a kind of remix night for the singer/ songwriter. Sufjan had pulled in a string quartet and two British trumpeters to go with his stalwart musicians and, for these two dates, rearranged his songs for the unique instrumental line-up: paintbrush in one hand adding new lines of melody and splashes of colour, sledgehammer in the other breaking songs down into their microcosmic componenets before throwing them back together again.

He opened with “Chicago”, just his faltering acoustic arpeggios propping up an eight part vocal harmony that the sizable backdrop of musicians all pitched in for. From there the arrangements got harder, more textured and incrementally more pretty. Sufjan fleeted from piano to guitar, horns and quartet billowing around, Xylophone pinpricks hopping and dancing atop their mid-range frequencies.

Sufjan’s banter was quick and witty but never self-conscious and, even if it was, never appeared premeditated. The whole presentation was far closer to a classical concert than an indie-folk meet. Songs were introduced, arrangements justified and lyrics expounded like a composer presenting his catalogue to a school assembly. But that’s not to say there was no soul: Sufjan’s songs have been unzipped and stuffed with a gentle kind of spirituality that washes over you rather than beats you down and, the material, especially those tracks from Seven Swans, enchanted and uplifted in equal measure.

Despite their redecoration, and in many cases, wholesale destruction, these new vignettes of perfectly, if strangely formed composition and arrangement lightened the dark blues of Tutu’s. It was a musical redesign to make the heart skip and twirl beneath it’s heaven-kissing pillars.

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