Sufjan Stevens's Songs of Healing Cast a Spell Over Jones Hall

Sufjan Stevens
Jones Hall For the Performing Arts
May 11, 2015

Eugene O’Neill once said that we are born broken and live by mending. Sufjan Stevens mends by relating reflective and heartfelt accounts of his troubled relationship with his recently deceased mother. Hearing his most intimate vignettes related to a packed Jones Hall Monday night never felt like eavesdropping. Super 8 footage of his family’s most celebrated moments was his invitation to the enthralled audience not only to share in his grief, but to heal their own.

Midway into the evening, Stevens reminded the audience of the ever-present moment: “Let’s make some noise while we’re still breathing.”

His two-hour-long eulogy, centered around Stevens’s tender and fragile croon and supported by a foursome of multi-instrumentalists, moved between the stunning songs on his latest release, Carrie and Lowell, and some of his most revered classics from the Illinois and Greetings From Michigan albums. Symphonic swells contrasted with silence between the notes, providing the audience an opportunity to contemplate the grim reality that, as the lyrics in “Fourth of July” declare, “We’re all gonna die.”

As the show began, lights resembled prayer-vigil candles. Emerging above were rose window panels like the kind often found in cathedrals and chapels. Home-video footage from happier times filled each panel, juxtaposed with his frustrated lyrics of growing up with a mother who abandoned Stevens at a young age. His mother was tormented by schizophrenia and substance abuse, and Stevens's songs seek to make sense of issues that are sometimes devoid of answers.

“Spirit of my silence / I can hear you,” led the introductory rites for the evening by way of the breathtaking “Death with Dignity.” The quartet shifted instruments between, and sometimes during, songs as the most versatile of the four, Dawn Landes, played nearly everything but the drums. Her sweet soprano elevated the harmonies without overpowering Stevens’s quiet delivery.

The baroque elements were reminiscent of other great albums centered on mortality, namely the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin and the Antlers’ Hospice. “All of Me Wants All of You” created vast landscapes with the delay and reverb-laden guitars; but on the other hand, the lighthearted “Eugene” evoked the short-lived innocence of childhood. Mischievous imagery of a dropped ashtray attempts to draw his mother’s attention – negative attention is still attention.

Yet the blithe moments were few and far between. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” traversed into the abyss with solemn shifts that crushed the hope of overcoming grief. Songs from Seven Swans, such as “In the Devil’s Territory” and “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” fit the show’s motif. The emotional weight hung around the audience's necks like a millstone, but Stevens and his band's mastery left the audience spellbound. The climax came during “Blue Bucket of Gold,” which ended in similar shoegaze splendor like Spiritualized, Jesu and My Bloody Valentine; its vibrant beauty brought the house to a standing ovation at the song’s end.

Levity arose during the encore. Stevens embraced the applause but remembered times far removed from his early days. Ending on an uplifting note, Stevens and company thanked the audience for taking the time to live vicariously through his personal sorrow. He promised joy in the end, launching into Illinois classic “Chicago.” With horns blazing, the anthem conjured another standing ovation from the captivated crowd, who were not ready to have their evening come to a close.

There was no finer place to watch Stevens perform than Jones Hall, and there has not been a more poignant musical display in Houston this year.

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Stephan Wyatt