Sufjan Stevens and his bittersweet homily come to UB

Singer-songwriter puts on incredible live show


Sufjan Stevens has a way of bringing out emotion like no other artists.

Bathed in a swath of swirling lights, the musician played all of his hit songs, including “Carrie and Lowell,” “Should Have Known Better” and “All of Me Wants All of You.”

On Friday, the Detroit singer-songwriter performed at the Center for the Arts (CFA) for a near sell-out crowd to promote his newest album Carrie & Lowell. The studio album, Stevens’ seventh, was released from Asthmatic Kitty Records on Jan. 12.

The concert was unlike anything anyone in the audience expected.

Stevens may have only said 20 words to the audience the entire night. But he really didn’t need to say anything at all – his music speaks for itself.

Stevens, known for his heavily emotional music, is much different live. The emotional artist played his music on top of a live band and adding in a heavy bass into his live show, which kept the audience on the edge of their seats the entire night.

Bryan Johnson and Yannay Khalkin, both from Toronto, came down from Canada to make sure they were able to see Stevens live.

They said Sufjan was a musician you never want to miss if you had a chance to see him – they saw him once before when he was touring for his Christmas album Songs for Christmas.

“All of his music is like poetry,” Khalkin said. “He is able to sing softly, have beautiful lyrics and still keep the audience involved.”

Stevens’ performance was constantly changing – each song started off with Stevens playing by himself on stage, illuminated by a single beam of light. After a soft chorus and verse, Stevens would cue the live band and slowly the instruments would add in one-by-one – piano, banjo, wind chimes, keyboard and drums. Stevens and his band made sure to keep the audience involved by keeping them guessing. Each new instrument felt refreshing and surprising.

At the crux of the concert when Stevens was performing “Blue Bucket of Gold,” the band wordlessly played an instrumental for 10 minutes onstage, an intense montage of pounding bass, drums, keyboard, guitar and swirling lights.

Patrick Daly, a student at SUNY Fredonia, said Sufjan was simply amazing.

“A lot of his songs on his records are completely different from how he played them,” he said. “It’s like you know it, but’s it’s a totally new thing. I loved it.”

It’s not often a musician can perform in a way that sounds completely different from his studio albums, but still is able to capture the crowd.

“I want to share my sadness with the world,” Stevens said during the performance. “Each night I’m able to share my emotions with the world – it feels special.”

Stevens, throughout the night, asked a lot of his band. Each band member was constantly moving onstage, shifting from instrument to instrument. One song could feature keyboards, piano and drums and the next extra vocals, a xylophone and a banjo – the band members were impressively adaptable to each new song.

The pace onstage kept Stevens’ music from getting too slow – the pace he has in his studio albums just doesn’t fit a live show. The added instruments and heavier bass made sure the concert didn’t ever feel too sluggish.

“It was fantastic, very moving,” said Mark Constantino, a Buffalo native. “His voice was phenomenal, and I loved the harmonies between all the players in the band.”

Humorously, Stevens projected a Buffalo Bills logo over himself during the encore, where Stevens performed many songs from his Illinois album, including “Chicago” and “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”

His songs, often tinged with humor and sadness, play on looking at tragedy with a tongue-in-cheek approach. Because of this, Stevens’ music is cathartic and invigorating, a hymnal for souls struggling to find meaning in their own lives.

Stevens says it himself – he only hopes his music is able to make people understand their own feelings.

Brian Windschitl is the senior arts editor and can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @_brnwnd.