Live Review: Sufjan Stevens at Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sufjan Stevens Wellington Michael Fowler Centre

Sufjan Stevens

w/ Dawn Landes

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Monday 7 March 2016


The night commenced with Dawn Landes playing her first of three sets. A member of Stevens’ band, Landes previewed some of the talent that would follow by starting us off on her own material. She had a great voice, and proved adept on many different stringed instruments, chiefly guitar and piano. The highlight of the set was her song “Bodyguard”, which proved livelier than many of her other sweet sleepy songs.

A short break between acts allowed me to marvel at the Michael Fowler Centre. In these fickle times, more and more venues are closing, which isn’t helped by many building being deemed earthquake risks. This makes me question why the Michael Fowler Centre is underutilised as a live music venue, with its striking wooden panelling and great acoustics. It was certainly the perfect venue for this show.

Sufjan Stevens and his band put on one of the most impressive stage shows that I’ve seen in a while. The lights were brilliant, thoughtfully planned out to synchronise with parts of the set. From dazzling spotlights, to coloured beams, to the use of two disco balls, they really added to the mood, made obvious from the stage fog and smoke from the incense sticks onstage. Behind the band were 12 vertical screens, showing images of stunning scenery and clips of Stevens’ home videos from his childhood.

The set drew predominantly from Stevens’ most recent album Carrie and Lowell, save for two songs near the end that clearly didn’t fit in with the rest. It was a sombre affair, the album being named after Stevens’ parents, with a strong focus on death and mortality. His mother had more than her fair share of mental issues, and had died of cancer in 2012. At one point Stevens appeared to be overwhelmed by revisiting such a personal topics, drawing a sharp breath at the end of one song and covering his face.

The musicians were all incredible, all accomplished on a number of instruments. Most members ended up playing piano, synth, mandolin, ukulele throughout the course of the night, and most songs featured the most gorgeous three part harmonies. It was a lovely marriage of old and new, full of juxtaposition. Chimes and incense sat next to bright lights and Tron-like neon tape, and muddy distorted synthesisers let loose before tender piano breaks and recorder tunes.

Following a short break, the band returned for a second unplugged set, with all five band members crowding around one microphone. This was a more jovial affair, with the musicians showing a less professional, but more accessible side of them. Most of them had changed into brighter clothing backstage, and they appeared more relaxed. One funny moments involved a banjo string snapping whilst being tuned, prompting Stevens to forget the lyrics to his own song. Stevens hadn’t even talked to the crowd beforehand, but now was happy to talk banter and share some thoughts. He told some stories about his upbringing, being one of six children, with a gazillion pets. These stories brought levity to the until-then somewhat depressing tale of his parents.

From the mesmerising first set of Carrie and Lowell, to the lighter, stripped back second set of hits, Stevens’ and his band kept us spellbound. There was no shortage of talent, and the visuals complemented the music perfectly. They inevitably ended with their hit song “Chicago”, leaving everyone humming the refrain well into the night.

Sufjan Stevens Wellington setlist

Joseph James