I just spent two wonderful evenings at Toronto’s beautiful Massey Hall: Tuesday, October 12 for Belle and Sebastian and the next night, October 13 for Sufjan Stevens.
Belle and Sebastian are touring in support of their new album, “Belle and Sebastian Write About Love”. I’d never seen them before and was becoming more and more excited in the weeks leading up to it. I made playlists on my iPhone of sets from setlist.fm and listened to them obsessively. Of course the set they played on Tuesday night was pretty different from what I’d been listening to, but that’s not such a big deal because they were incredible.
The crowd was quite a mix of ages, which isn’t a surprise, and it didn’t take long for people to rush to the stage and dance. (I, naturally, was not one of those people.) There was a collective “Awww” from the crowd when a little girl got up on stage and joined the handful that were brought up to dance to “The Boy With The Arab Strap”.
I love the earnest, sweet and clever tone of their songs. I usually feel like I’m hearing something fresh when I listen to them (yes, I know they’re considered “retro”). At one point I leaned over to my friend and said, “They’re so cool” and he just laughed because, well, Belle and Sebastian are pretty awesome.
Here’s a video I took of the band playing their final encore song, “Judy and the Dream of Horses”. Actually, he started into “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song” and then had to stop because he couldn’t remember the rest!
While Belle and Sebastian own the stage with confidence, experience and an essentially flawless performance, Sufjan Stevens‘ charm is the complete opposite: his presence is chaotic, nervous and unpredictable. Opening the set with a 10+ minute version of “All Delighted People” definitely set the tone of the evening: It starts off with a capella vocals and the next thing you know, almost out of nowhere, it’s a huge eruption of sound from the horn section, guitars, bass, keyboards, multiple vocalists, and stereo drums (one drummer on each side of the stage.) It was a pretty insane stage setup and I’m surprised that they weren’t tripping over cables all night.
Sufjan’s latest record, The Age Of Adz, features songs and song-cycles that, on first listen, may seem like a huge departure from the relative sweetness that we’ve gotten used to. In reality, however, “Adz” is a pretty logical musical and conceptual progression from his previous work. It appears that Sufjan kind of “found himself” in the years since “Illinois”, especially after reading of how he was questioning his feelings towards continuing to share his songs with the public (i.e., release albums and tour).
Indeed, Sufjan did a fair bit of explaining (justifying?) in between songs. He talked about things that influenced/inspired his creative direction (mainly the work of Royal Robertson) and alluded to a difficult period in his life to which writing and recording this album was therapeutic. My point is that it seemed like he felt a genuine need to explain himself and his “weird music”. While I do find his new material challenging, riveting and beautiful, it was still cool to hear him kind of justify it.
The entire show was pretty much a spectacle. It was a feast for not only the ears, but the eyes as well, as the instrument swapping, choreographed dancing and projections made for a lot of things to watch. Sufjan himself isn’t too bad to look at either now, is he?
The standout for me was the 25-minute “song cycle about love”, “Impossible Soul”. This song was performed in its entirety and I can’t really describe how amazingly satisfying it was to experience it.
The only thing that was likely disappointing to some is that there wasn’t more older material covered. Aside from the final three songs (“Chicago”, “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”), the entire set was new stuff. I wouldn’t have minded hearing some earlier stuff but not if it meant sacrificing any of what he did perform.
Here’s a couple of videos I took from my first-row seat. The first is “Heirloom” from the All Delighted People EP; the second is “Too Much” from The Age Of Adz.