Monday, 16 May 2011


What's amazing about life is that you can be questioning pretty much everything, and feeling a deep sense of solitude and existential angst, and then you can get on a train, meet a friend, sit on a deckchair and drink half a bottle of Cava, head into the Royal Festival Hall and have one of the best musical experiences of your existence. Maybe that proves that my angst isn't that deep-seated. Maybe I'm just really fickle. Or maybe it's that Sufjan Stevens gave me exactly what I needed: a brief sense of belonging.

I'd never seen him live before and knew him only from two albums: Illinoise and some crazy Christmas collection where he plays original festive songs on a bizarre selection of instruments and sings along in his breathy, meandering, wouldn't-hurt-a-fly fashion. If you'd asked me to describe my gig predictions beforehand, I'd have gone for a kind of Ray Lamontagne figure, sleepy and unprepossessing, noodling away on a guitar centre stage, low on personality, high on awkward musicality.

So when the show opened and Sufjan's band arrived, three trombones back right, one drummer front left, another drummer front right, a pianist centre right, some guitarists mid-left, and two great backing vocalist dancers on a raised platform centre back, I was a little surprised. I would have been surprised even if he'd come on wearing a T-shirt and jeans, as I'd expected, but Sufjan was wearing a tight black zootsuit covered in strips of neon tape, with further strips of tape on his face, and a eight-foot diameter pair of homemade fabric wings on his back.

And the mood was one of love. It was all gloriously flawed. His left wing wouldn't stay erect and so right from the start, he looked like a damaged bird fighting with his final breaths. The suit was all tight and wrinkly around his knees but a bit baggy and wrong in other places, coming in tight around the ankles and paired with some bog-standard trainers. The graphics on the huge background screen were clearly a labour of love, most likely hand drawn by Sufjan himself, who's an artist as well as a talented musician. I tell you what he's not, and that's an amazing dancer by conventional standards. And again, this just piled points onto the Charmometer. His blocky arm movements were carried out with conviction but scarce skill - he looked a bit like he was half-heartedly copying a routine from the TV, while drunk. Several times there was more than a hint of Ross Gellar about him - and, having pointed this out to James, we both then screamed during the finale when the girls did the hold-your-left-foot-in-your-left-hand-with-your-right-hand-behind-your-right-ear move that was almost the best bit of The Routine (click here to revisit - move in question is at 01:20 but my favourite bit is Schwimmer's head jerks of victory when it's over).

So it was all a bit clunky. And as a practiced perfectionist, by rights, this should have irritated me. Don't I have high standards for the performances I choose to see? Don't my gig watchwords include slick and/or perfectly-choreographed? Readers: maybe I'm changing. Because it was the flaws that made this for me. Sufjan poured everything into this gig, and in that respect, it was massively emotional. It's rare in life that you see someone trying really fucking hard to do something, and when you do, you feel gratitude for the bravery they had in choosing to expose themselves that way. The first note I wrote down was about halfway through the gig, when a lyric caught my ear: "And when I die, I'll rot. But when I live, I'll give it all I've got." It was that, that unashamed effort, which wore down my London cynicism. The confidence to be publically vulnerable. I tell the truth too - but in the face of so much pressure to be positive, it's often hard to admit my struggles. But this was infectious. At the first possible opportunity, people leapt from their seats and poured down the stairs to be closer to the stage. The ticker tape, the balloons, the beautiful music, the extraordinary rhythms and chords: it was all so strange and magical, and for an hour or two, I forgot I was alone.

On Sunday morning, I made a note of these lines from Woody Allen that I read in an online interview with him. He's answering the question 'What drives you nuts?':
"The human predicament: the fact that we’re living in a nightmare that everyone is making excuses for and having to find ways to sugarcoat. And the fact that life, at its best, is a pretty horrible proposition. But people’s behavior makes it much, much worse than it has to be.... I do think we live in a nightmare and I feel the same way that Blanche Dubois feels: I want magic; I don’t want reality. I want the paper lanterns hung over the bare light bulbs, like she did. And if there is any way to escape reality, I’m all for it. Unfortunately, there isn’t any real way. You can distract yourself. You can go to baseball games and concerts and plays and have sex and get involved in all kinds of endeavours that obsess you, and you can even create problems for yourself, where they don’t exist, to avoid thinking about the bad problems. But, in the end, you’re caught. And reality inevitably disappoints you."

I emailed that quotation to a friend, who replied with one from Alexander Ebert, the guy behind the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros:
"I grew up with more shit than most people and with a lack of a certain kind of suffering that, in some people, signifies true living and experience. So I became self-destructive. But that attitude isn't sustainable, so I found my way back to brightness and more constructive ways to live. Both are reactions to the same thing: death. It's like we're confronted with a fucked-up world and the refusal to lose hope is the only way to prevail over the pessimism and sarcasm. And from the refusal to lose hope comes the desire to build something else and the ability to accept that that something else may not be created in your lifetime. But that's irrelevant. The thrust is the intention."

There are a lot of people out there who know the truth, but who still make positive choices. I'm at an earlier stage where I'm just coming to terms with things, accepting life for what it is and making peace with reality, rather than running and hiding in endless nights out, hilarious antics and the fantasy of unconditional love. But it's inspiring to know that it might just be possible to reconcile this struggle and somehow find a happier place. I'll keep trying.

This is my 700th LLFF. Many happy returns to you, Faithful. This is written with love for all of us.


  1. I was there too, at sufjan and it struck me that as the music and the sound were so perfect(so often at gigs it isnt), it must have been a deliberate decision, with the aim to connect with the audience,to make all the visuals look home-made and achievable and real and was very successfully at that and that thus it was truthful selfexposure,rather than self-aggrandissement. A bit like you do:-)? I loved it

  2. You were there too?! Oh, that makes it even better! Thanks so much for sharing your insights. You're totally right about the rare sound quality, it is such a fantastic venue and must be such a treat for musicians. And I really like your idea that he made his visuals deliberately 'achievable' - that's such a nice, inclusive concept. I loved it too. Yay too shared experiences!