Sufjan Stevens live @The Helix, Dublin 29 Aug 2015

Sufjan Stevens live at the Helix

Photo: stilpix

It is just around 9.05pm on Saturday night when it happens.

Barely half way through the second song of his second sold out date in Dublin, Sufjan Stevens sings the line ‘I forgive you mother I can hear you, and I long to be near you, But every road leads to an end..’ and I crumble.

Staring straight ahead, I try to suppress what’s coming, but it is futile. As Stevens delicately picks his way  through ‘Death with Dignity’, the second song of an extraordinary two hour set, grainy images of his childhood play out behind him, a home movie of happier times spent with his mother Carrie.

The effect is overwhelming; it’s the first of many moments during a moving and mesmerising set during which Stevens delivers an emotional payload that packs quite a punch.

Carrie and Lowell may very well be the album that proves to be his greatest achievement – a beautiful, heart-breaking meditation on death, and coming to terms with the loss of those dear to us. On Saturday night, the affecting nature of that record is amplified and intensified beyond measure – Stevens and his band render these songs faithfully, while embellishing them with great washes of textured electronica and a light show that adds drama and power to the performance.

‘Should Have Known Better’ is another early highlight before Steven’s puzzlingly breaks the spell with a reworked version of ‘All of Me Wants All of You’. On record, it is another delicate, hushed acoustic track, maintaining the mood of the album, but live it is given a full eighties makeover complete with screeching electronica, big beats and some cheesy dance moves that were par for the course on the Age of Adz tour back in 2010. The effect is momentarily jarring and the only obvious misstep on the night – from here on in, it is one beautiful moment after the next.Sufjan Stevens setlist, Dublin 29 Aug 2015

The bulk of the set is taken from Carrie and Lowell; ‘Drawn to the Blood’, ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’ and ‘The Only Thing’ are all delivered with a sombre power but it’s the albums centrepiece, ‘Fourth Of July’ that truly astounds, with the closing refrain ‘we’re all going to die’ repeated over and over again as the music builds to a monumental crescendo.

Never have we been confronted with our own mortality in such a scarily uplifting way.

Older songs like ‘Futile Devices’ and particularly ‘The Owl and the Tanager’ with its cascading piano motif provide a reminder of the strength of his back catalogue and fit the mood of the evening perfectly.

He finishes the set with an extraordinary version of ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’; the song dissolving into a 15 minute outro of ambient noise that increases in volume and intensity  until the electronic sub bass threatens to bring the building down around us – you could see people shifting uncomfortably in their seats, unsure of where this was going or where it would end.

The band leave the stage to a rapturous response, and it is only on their return that Stevens addresses the audience for the first time. The encore re-acquaints us with some old friends; ‘Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’ and a spine tingling version of ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr’ (both from his breakout 2005 album ‘Illinois’) are warmly greeted.

He finishes the encore with a stripped back arrangement of one of his best loved songs ‘Chicago’ before bidding us farewell following the second standing ovation of the night.

There are very few shows I have witnessed with so many moments of such chokingly sad intensity as this; on Saturday night, Sufjan Stevens allowed us to share something uniquely personal and intimate that touched a raw nerve for many of those present.

In the process, he reminded us that there are no neatly tied up endings, that pain and heartbreak are always  part of the deal but somehow it is all still worth it.

A very special night in the company of the wonderful Sufjan Stevens.

Photographs reproduced by kind permission of James Murray (stilpix)