Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 27, 2021

Sufjan Stevens mixes folk with psychadelic lights

November 5, 2015

Courtesy of Emily Herman Sufjan Stevens mesmerized the audience by filling the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with flurries of light.


Sufjan Stevens played a lengthy set of his signature atmospheric indie-folk music at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Sunday, using diverse instruments, chilling vocals and extensive lighting to create intense intimacy in the 2,443-seat venue. Stevens drew fans of all ages ranging from indie teenagers to older people who fit the stereotype for a typical symphony concertgoer — the whole crowd was moved to give a standing ovation.

Stevens hails from Detroit and is best known for his 2005 album Illinois whose single “Chicago” is also featured in the movie Little Miss Sunshine. He is known for incorporating a large range of instruments into his music, and included guitar, piano, xylophone, vibraphone, guitalin, recorder and many forms of percussion in his set.

There was no direct interaction with the audience until the very end of his performance; instead, Stevens used lighting, pictures and visual effects running on long vertical screens in the back of the stage to communicate with the audience.

The lighting would often begin very minimally, so as to only partially light Stevens and his accompanying musicians, before radiating outward and filling the room.. In this way, Stevens and his band were often obscured from view, adding to the almost psychedelic component of his music.

Through the picture show in the background, Stevens often communicated themes of family and social interaction through what appeared to be home videos of children and people interacting. He also used this backdrop picture show to display some landscapes, as he sang more mellow, slower tunes.

He established a dream-like atmosphere right at the start of the show, performing the entirely instrumental track “Redford.”

The pieces’ precise, sharp sounds and rolling, powerful bass took advantage of the incredible acoustics of the concert hall. As he transitioned into his second song “Death with Dignity,” Stevens used a cascading of percussion, paired with an upward cascade of lights, as if opening up his stage to the audience members.

Stevens transitioned between instruments throughout the show, from traditional instruments to his laptop, making each one look easy.

At one point he even combined vocals and his own playing of the recorder with his awkward but charming dance moves. This fluidity throughout resonated with the audience members, in a way that removed the need for Stevens to address the audience directly. He concluded the portion before the encore as he began it, wordlessly.

The first closing song combined instruments and electronic melodies with a hypnotic, breathtaking light show. The combination of sounds was so precise and matched the movement of the lights which were shining out into the audience. The audience could also not see the musicians due to this lighting and was really immersed in an auditory experience that resonated throughout the hall.

When the show ended and Stevens was called back for an encore, he finally addressed the audience. There was a large change in pace from the previous setting. Stevens talked about his experiences with death, recounting an experience in the sixth grade of one of his classmate’s passing away. He described how the school grief counselor held up their late classmate’s jacket and said, “He no longer resides in this because he resides within us.” Stevens went on to explain that we should “receive death, contain it and consume it to help us live more fully.”

Stevens ended the show on an entirely different note by calling back his opening act Gallant to perform a cover of Drake’s hit single “Hotline Bling.” Stevens awkwardly yet endearingly mimicked the dance alongside a slideshow of Drake’s music video, looking like a drunk Michael Cera. This had the audience excitedly cheering and singing along and ended the show on a very positive note.

Overall the different elements of Stevens’s experience with expertly crafted tones and his address about death and its meaning in life helped to create a reflective and introspective show.

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