Friday, 18 January 2008

Sufjan Stevens

The Forum, Melbourne.

You know that moment in early-noughties TV shows when there's a heartfelt montage of meaningful scenes, all set to moving music?

You've seen it. The camera pans around the couple that just broke up, sitting alone in their separate houses; the gruff but lovable older character is sitting in a dimly-lit bar, drinking to console himself over that painful but inevitable decision; and the person who's been hurt most by all of this is efficiently getting on with their job, seemingly oblivious, but we know, just know, that they're really dying inside.

Scrubs used to do this sort of thing quite a lot.

If it's done well, you have to be made of stone not to get a tug on the heartstrings. And if it's done brilliantly, even the toughest of the tough will be surreptitiously blinking the tears away (saying "I've got something in my eye!").

This moment provides you with a deep feeling of connection to the characters on the screen. You feel their pain, you see their dilemma, and you desperately want everything to work out okay. It can be one of the highest achievements in blending music and visuals, and achieve for the viewer something akin to a mental orgasm. And the choice of music is absolutely critical.

Anyway, there were moments during Sufjan Stevens' concert last night at The Forum that made me feel like that. It's the only way I know how to describe it. A rush of music into a delicious crescendo made me raise my eyes, pulled at my heart and I felt it, from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.

The power of mixing sound and vision is not lost on Mr Stevens. The concert featured a visual accompaniment to each of the songs, projected on a giant screen at the rear of the stage. Images ranged from vague shapes in constellations of stars to psychedelic semi-random swirls to home movie footage of the band goofing off. And it all worked brilliantly well.

Sufjan (pronounced soof-yarn) looks, and speaks, a little like Steve Carell's dorky younger brother, but his self-deprecation belies an extraordinary musical ability that really has to be heard to be believed. Even those familiar with his back-catalogue may not have been quite prepared for the weight of live delivery. I certainly wasn't. Tracks that appear wispy thin, almost cheesy, in their recorded form take on a much darker mood and deeper feeling in the live space.

Sufjan's backing band were great, consisting of a brass section (two trumpets, french horn and trombone), a dude alternating between saxophone and clarinet, various combinations of piano, guitar and banjo, and a chick singing backing vocals. The brass section was particularly good, adding a beautiful underlying texture to proceedings. The clarinet was fine, but on occasion the saxophone noodling started to resemble that bit in Spinal Tap when they announced "We hope you like our new direction!". Not so good. But this was rare.

My one real gripe was the venue. While The Forum is great for loud rock shows, a show like this has so many contrasts in volume that the ambient noise in the room (or lack thereof) is really important to maintaining the magic. Unfortunately, The Forum has a bunch of bars directly adjacent to the audience space. There were lots of times when the music volume dropped to almost nothing as Sufjan whispered/wailed over a slowly rising backup, only for us to hear the unmistakable clinking of bottles and the sound of some guy caught unawares asking for another Lemon Ruski.

Ventilation was also severely lacking, with a hot and stuffy atmosphere marring what should have been a thoroughly awesome evening.

But really, these are minor issues. The performance on the stage was magic and far transcended it all.

Sufjan rules.


Shannon said...

I like air...