Edinburgh International Festival Review: Sufjan Stevens and Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear (5 stars)

Stevens Edinburgh Playhouse

Photo credit: Elijah Wade Smith 30/08/15

Anna Crow

Sufjan Stevens may not often come to Scotland – his last gig here prior to this event as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival was at Òran Mór in Glasgow in 2005 – but at least he is well informed in certain important respects about our beautiful country.  Knowing that Scotland’s national creature is the unicorn seems like a befitting piece of essential Scottish knowledge for the multi-instrumentalist and musical artist, a being almost mythical in certain circles, whose creativity and talent can transcend any number of genres and who may even sport an impressive pair of wings upon occasion, but who may equally be seen in the unassuming guise of a baseball cap-wearing, acoustic singer-songwriter who can even laugh at himself when he makes a mistake during a song.

Moreover, as Sufjan Stevens himself informs us, he actually grew up with a unicorn. It perhaps was not the usual type of unicorn depicted in iconography and mythology, and some may have tried to belittle and disregard this unicorn, calling it merely a goat which had sustained a unfortunate accident to one of its horns, but who are we to say it was not a unicorn nonetheless?  In the gospel according Sufjan Stevens, what you were told elsewhere to disregard as imperfection can be beautiful.  In the gospel according to Sufjan Stevens, things you were told were impossible may be not so impossible.

The 40-year-old musician has acquired a cult level of international following in the years since releasing his first recording A Sun Came in 2000 on the Asthmatic Kitty label he co-founded with his stepfather Lowell Brams.  His 7th studio album Carrie & Lowell, named after his mother, who died in 2012, as well as his stepfather, was released early this year to widespread critical album.  Many, myself included, consider this recording his best to date.  It is no mere return to the elegantly melancholic stripped-back indie folk previously showcased in recordings including the 2004 album Seven Swans but a gorgeously crafted piece of musical artistry which does not shy away from pain in its exploration of intimacy and loss.  The level of excitement was palpable as crowds gathered from Edinburgh, Glasgow and even further afield at the Edinburgh Playhouse last night for this rare opportunity to see him live and in Scotland.

For myself and undoubtedly a significant number of others present, this event was also our first introduction to mother-son duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, who released their first album Skeleton Crew on Glassnote Records this year.  The compelling, melodiously interweaving acoustic guitar playing teamed with rousing and soulful vocals in their supporting act set left me keen for more, particularly for the chance to perhaps see them in the future in a more intimate setting than the formal space of this theatre, which did strike me as somewhat incongruous in this context.  I am jealous of those who have got to encounter them at open mic nights in coffeehouses in Independence, Missiouri, where they first performed as a firm duo.

By contrast, the way in which Sufjan Stevens’ set was crafted for such a performance space as this was striking to an overwhelming degree.   Pictures and videos including beautiful landscapes, geometric graphics and images of the artist himself and his family, and a range of impressive lighting techniques provided a vibrant and interactive backdrop to this musical showcase, largely and unsurprisingly focused around his most recent release.  A startling feel of intimacy despite the large physical size of the space was created through powers of passion, imagination and technical skill, which intermingled visuals, sounds and more into an extraordinarily beautiful and moving experience.  Crescendos spanning these multiple dimensions were built to with hypnotic intensity; contrastingly, moments such as during Fourth of July when Sufjan Stevens’ vocals and those of his backing band dropped down to soft auditory caresses were somehow both soothing and utterly heart-breaking.  I know I was not the only person there who had tears running down my face for much of his 2 hour long set.

Sufjan Stevens’ artistry is also evident in the sense in which each created and recorded track when performed live is an evolving and unique thing – rhythms and tempos may be changed, new instrumental elements, vocals or visual elements may be added, or tracks which may encompass a whole orchestra of instruments in the recorded form may be stripped down to a bare minimum of largely acoustic elements.  There is an inherent sense of the joy of adventure in this, in moments such as last night’s performances of All Of Me Wants All Of You and undoubted fan favourite Chicago, the closing track of the encore, yet this is balanced by the warm, comfortable familiarity of meeting old friends and finding them to be virtually unchanged over the years.  One of a number of examples of this was For the Widows In Paradise, For the Fatherless In Ypsilanti from the 2003 album Michigan, a personal favourite of mine as the first Sufjan Stevens song I ever got to know.

Some might feel I should be embarrassed about getting to know the music of Sufjan Stevens after that track was featured in an episode of the third series of the TV show The O.C., first aired in 2006.  Why should I care, when for me the important thing is not the ‘how’ but that I got to know it, and not only the music itself, but through that gain the privilege of some insight into the mind and life of the artist himself?  The only thing I am still disappointed about is that this introduction happened after Sufjan Stevens’ last Scottish gig in Glasgow in 2005.  Even in the knowledge that powers exist that can make things previously thought to be impossible not so impossible, to change this fact unfortunately remains impossible.  I remain incredibly grateful that Sufjan Stevens is who he is and does what he does and that I had the opportunity to experience such an amazing artist and show live in Edinburgh last night.  5 stars.

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