Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Sufjan Stevens unearths quirk at Boston Calling

Colorful costumes and musical arrangements made Sufjan Stevens’ opening night performance one of the festival’s most unique. (Photo courtesy of Mike Diskin)

On Friday night musician Sufjan Stevens crowned the end of Boston Calling’s era claiming City Hall. Though Stevens kicked off the festival as the second performer in its first night, he had one of the more memorable performances of the entire weekend. Now in its fourth year, the semi-annual music festival will expand to an annual music, visual arts and film festival at the Harvard University Athletic Complex in Allston next May.

Clad in a neon tracksuit and silver streamers, Stevens opened at 8:05 p.m. with the title track “Seven Swans” from his 2004 album, which directly confronts the stories of his Christian faith in a subdued, melancholic tone. Stevens rearranged the song as an electro-pop ballad, which included his two backup singers/dancers who were dressed in similar day-glo paint and costumes.

Once the song ended, he smashed his banjo onstage and announced to the crowd, “We’ve spent a year touring the world singing about death. So, if you don’t mind, we’d like to have a little fun tonight.”

Stevens’ latest LP “Carrie & Lowell,” with its return to his familiar folky sound, digs into his childhood and reflects his feelings of loneliness, depression and grief after his mother’s death in 2012. Stevens toured internationally after its March 2015 release, but only played three songs off the album for his Boston Calling performance.

Before performing “Should Have Known Better,” a song about self-loathing, disconnected feelings and the absence of his mother, Stevens made a dedication to his niece. In one line Stevens sings, “In a manner of speaking I’m dead,” amidst declarations of past traumas, but by the last line of the song, there is this hopeful tone, “My brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings, illumination.”

Stevens slowed down his upbeat performance with “Casimir Pulaski Day” from 2005’s “Illinois” and ended his set with “Chicago” from the same album, which was reissued on vinyl with new cover art in April of this year.

Five of the 12 songs he performed were from his 2010 electronic album “The Age of Adz,” including “Too Much,” “Vesuvius,” “Impossible Soul,” “I Want to Be Well,” and “I Walked,” which he unearthed for the first time since 2011.

At one point Stevens appeared in angel wings, a symbolic reinvention of the folk-indie artist. Stevens changed costumes during his 75-minute performance, even wearing a disco ball strapped to his chest, but the background screen was the visual takeaway. Throughout his performance, a montage of video clips complemented the music. Although eye-catching visually, Stevens’ performance did not scream “beautiful,” but rather whispered in its intimate simplicity, much like his soft-toned voice.

The performance, like his most recent album, felt to be autobiographical and a cathartic experience for him to express his current place in his life. Far from a one-dimensional, eye-popping take on his folk songs, it was instead an experimentation of his life’s work. It felt reminiscent of the past, but also had a hopeful look to the future. Those were the parallel underlying sentiments about Boston Calling in its original downtown location for one last Memorial Day weekend.

Stevens will perform at the Pitchfork, Panorama and Outside Lands music festivals this summer with stops at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia.

Emily Johnson can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @emilyannejo.

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    Tora CourseyJun 2, 2016 at 10:42 pm

    Wish I could have made it this year – sounds great!! Sufjan Stevens has always been a favorite of mine.