Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell is one of the saddest pieces of music I’ve ever listened to, a eulogy cut through with the frankness Stevens regularly summons into his art. But his shows have also, for years now, functioned as elaborate, disorienting, neon-striped celebrations. In his past tour in support of Carrie & Lowell, Stevens has had to address these disparate elements, and his tour-ending stop at the Hollywood Bowl was no exception: After singing “I cried myself to sleep last night,” he deadpanned, “What’s new.”
Stevens was the unlikely cap of a showcase of “world music” curated by KCRW. First up was Ibeyi, the French-Cuban Yoruba-singing Díaz twins who shore up their beats with mesmerizing harmonies; clad in matching red jumpsuits, they—their voices, their smiles—beamed beyond the stage. While I wish they’d had a quieter, more intimate venue to better serve their songs, the sisters seemed ecstatic — another notch for their collective belt, in a year that also saw them appear in Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
After them came Kurt Vile and the Violators, with the titular Vile playing the carefree vagabond — though his studied, polite performance suggested otherwise. His sharp eye for lyrical details, and the band’s tendency to freewheel into solos and jams, translated well for the KCRW crowd.
The Bowl is perfect for that “days of yore Americana” reference sound; after all, it’s an almost century-old venue in a city that doesn’t let most anything last that long. But it’s a very different Americana that Stevens brought to the stage, or rather a much more radical vision of performance than either other act put on. For while Stevens’s carnival rave aesthetic is so distinct that it even inspired cosplayers in the audience, it’s also breathtaking to actually see live.
Amidst the flurry of wings, balloons, neon spandex, large metallic robot god gear, broken banjo pieces (he smashed one right at the beginning of his set), and a surprise Moses Sumney serving as a part of his madcap crew, Stevens laid bare the full depth of his catalogue, pulling all the way from 2003’s Michigan and especially from 2010’s The Age of Adz. And throughout the night, even his most stripped back songs were treated to spectacle, with truly trippy animated projections, coordinated dancing, and self-deprecating banter emboldening everything from “Vesuvius” to “Seven Swans.”
But the most tender moments of his set came from the Carrie & Lowell songs, which he’s reworked significantly for the live. Songs like “Fourth of July” become paeans; never has the thought “We’re all gonna die” sounded as beautiful as it did with an undercurrent of brass, and spoken aloud by thousands of people at once. Reworked into jubilance, these songs about death became part of Stevens’s assertions of life. It was fitting, then, that his last song was a proper eulogy; with Sumney, he closed the night with a cover of Prince’s “Kiss.”