We’re all gonna die

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sufjan olympia

Sufjan Stevens – Fourth of July

I attended a Sufjan Stevens concert in the Olymipa Theater on Saturday, Nov. 7. It was a positive life experience. Here were my thoughts.

  •   I picked up my friend Dubs at his apartment. His gf bought the tickets for his birthday (even though she liked the latest album far more than he did, so it was more for her), but then ended up going on a work trip for two weeks. I bought her ticket off him.
  •   We listened to the new Grimes on the drive and talked about Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show. Dubs told me to watch out for Aziz’s appearance on Stephen Colbert later this week, and recommended the Fresh Air interview by Terry Gross. I felt very American, or at least that I had a good handle on a specific genre of American culture.
  •   Olympia Theater is this old school movie theater, the first building in Florida with air conditioning, that’s been preserved as a venue. It’s always fun to go to, until you remember how steep the seating is, and your shin hits the chair in front of you for the duration of a show and hurts by the end. Still, the sound is crisp, so I don’t mind gigs there.

A photo posted by @zacleerigg on

  •   Our friend While met us at the show and stole someone’s seat the row in front of us. We talked about how Aziz treats old people in his show. Dubs told us about watching the show with his grandparents, who he had visited for four hours that day. His grandma has memory issues, but his grandfather finds it hilarious whenever TV shows talk about sex. “You would too if you grew up before that was allowed, or before there was TV,” Dubs said.
  •   In the off chance you didn’t read any press about Carrie & Lowell, SPOILER ALERT, it’s about Sufjan’s mom dying. I wondered aloud how one tours with an album like that. “He doesn’t wear wings for this tour, does he?” I asked.
  •   A band named Gallant opened. I liked their vibe and aesthetic much more than their actual songs.
  •   Okay, fine, I’ll just tell you. Sufjan leaned in. He and his band dressed all in black and didn’t talk throughout the set. They played nearly every song from the album. The lights behind them were incredible but tasteful. At several points, they projected old home video behind the band. It was very somber, poignant. “That took me to an emotional place it’s difficult to get to,” Dubs said. It wasn’t outright sad (I didn’t see anyone crying), but it was heavy.
  •   I liked the arrangements. They were understated (nothing ever felt extraneous), but the builds were large, and some of the new syncopated beats they added really drew out the songs. They closed the set with an extended instrumental song that I hadn’t heard before. I really enjoyed it. It made me think that if Sufjan put out an EDM album or had a deejay set, I’d want to hear it. I think he’s incredibly talented. It used to be I thought he should abandon all the excess instruments he threw in his albums and just sing sad songs on acoustic guitar. But I was wrong–about that and other things too.
  •   In “Fourth of July” they extended the ending. The whole band kept singing “We’re all gonna die” again and again, louder and louder. I thought about self-awareness. I mean, Sufjan has to be self-aware enough to acknowledge that that’s weird, right? Maybe not weird. But that it’s a Thing. To go see a band and they sing “We’re all gonna die” repeatedly is a Thing. And he has to be aware of its thingness, I think. Anyway, I liked it. That moment stood out.
  •   Sufjan is, as While put it, “Hand Guy.” He does weird boxy dances with his arms whenever he doesn’t have an instrument in it. He’s a terrible dancer. It comes across so bro-y. I had difficulty marrying this thoughtful, intricate songwriter with this dude bro-dancing. If you can, try to never see him dance in your life. It’s for the best.
  •   Since this is Miami, there were a lot of Woo Girls. I found this inappropriate. This dude is up there singing about his mom dying, and women are saying, “Woo!”? Rude. I think the worst instance was when Sufjan sings, “There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross,” and a girl wooed loudly, right before the song ended. It undercut the line. Eventually, people got annoyed and started shushing. And then people would shush the shushers. There would just be shushes and ironic shushes circling around the venue. It was weird. I sighed and shook my head a lot.

  •   After the set, the whole band came to the middle of the stage, bowed, and walked off. The house lights stayed off, so I took the opportunity to rail against encore culture to Dubs. I just think it’s such a facade. We all know you’re coming back for some more songs. You know we know. Let’s not kid each other. We’re all adults here, so why don’t you just keep playing fucking songs until you’re done, instead of wasting my time? Dubs laughed at my hawt take.
  •   But then a weird thing happened. As I was ranting, I had a thought. Encores give shows a very specific structure. You have the bulk of the show in one sort of emotional or even narrative arc, then you take a break, and you come back for a few songs that have their own arc. Structures aren’t inherently good or bad, it’s what you do with them. And Sufjan did something beautiful with his. He came back with a colorful jacket and red beanie on, and played a much more upbeat second set of old songs. He chatted with the crowd. Everyone sighed, relaxed, and loosened a bit. For one night only, I was thankful that encore culture exists.
  •   “It sucks doing this show,” Sufjan said. “It’s like a funeral.” Then he talked about what it felt like to explore his sadness in the open in front of the world. How relieving and healing it was to him. It felt good, he decided, to hoist his grief on us, and we laughed.
  •   “I never thought it’d be a relief to play this song,” he said. “This is my murder ballad.” Then he launched into John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and it was a relief. I still remember the first time I heard that song. I was in college, listening on a compact disc with the lyric sheet in front of me. I was on the bottom of a bunk bed outside of Chicago, my brothers scattered in other bunks, as we visited my aunt. I read the last line, “Look beneath the floorboards, for the secrets I have hid,” and gasped audibly. Then I hit ‘back’ and listened to the song again. Then again. And again. Very few songs have hit me so hard immediately.
  •   The only non-Carrie & Lowell song I registered in the first set was Vesuvius. The second set was mostly his quieter songs. At one point, three of them picked up guitars, and Dubs said, “Bet they play Chicago.” I said, “Bet it’s Romulus.” He said okay, and we set the stakes: loser bought the winner a Martinelli’s apple juice. They played Chicago. “I can’t believe you thought they were going to play Romulus,” Dubs said. “I didn’t. I just like being argumentative,” I said. “Well, I’m glad that caught up with you finally,” he said. “It catches up with me daily,” I said. Later that night I bought him an apple juice at a wine bar and we sat grinning like idiots holding our plump little bottles as the women around us chatted and spilled Pinot Grigio.
  •   They closed the second set by inviting Gallant back on stage. Sufjan apologized for not having any happy songs of his own, so he had to borrow one. “If God is my copilot, then Drake is my ____ ____.” (Dubs heard “little horse,” but I don’t know if that works.) Then they played Hotline Bling. Don’t get me wrong. I love Hotline Bling. I think it’s the catchiest song going right now. But this was not a good cover. It was sloppy and slapstick. Sufjan kept doing his horrible dancing. Also, he invited everyone to stand, something I absolutely do not do when asked. I understand the desire to leave the show on that tone, I just thought it was sloppy and under-served the previous two hours.

  •   When the song was over, I stood, and walked out, thinking of all the things I want to tell my mother.

[Carrie & Lowell]

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