Packed to the mezzanine, a Jones Hall audience sat stock still during the Houston performance of Sufjan Stevens’s US tour on Monday night. Fans clung to every single note and lyric of his emotionally charged, hushed, falsetto vocals.
Released in March, Stevens’s seventh album, Carrie and Lowell, was the centerpiece for the concert. Named after his recently deceased mother and still living stepfather, the album served as a somber tribute to the complex relationship between the musician and his mother.
Both tender and tortured, his lyrics offered an intimate view into his troubled childhood, and experience with the catharsis of grief. Stevens is known for his eclectic mix of genres and instrumentation in recent albums, but the critically acclaimed Carrie and Lowell hearkens back to the simplicity of his earlier indie folk albums. This performance was particularly poignant, given the 2012 death of his mother, and the live concert falling the night after Mother’s Day.
Opening the show on a dimly lit stage alone with his piano, Stevens and his four-piece band progressed through their set list without addressing the audience until the last 40 minutes of the show—but the songs were so profoundly sentimental that no one in the audience seemed to notice. Superficial stage chitchat would have seemed out of place.
Many of the songs followed a simple, yet effective format: start softly with breathy vocals, piano and acoustic string accompaniment, then crescendo into a percussive, synth-heavy orchestral climax. Organs and chimes, coupled with stained glass window–shaped video boards suspended above the stage, gave the auditory and visual effect of a church.
Despite the weight of his lyrics, Stevens’s music has a soothing quality that doesn’t leave the listener feeling heavy. There’s sweetness to his sorrow, and his music manages to be vulnerable and uplifting in the same tones. Between vocals, the swelling instrumental interludes could easily be the soundtrack to a dream sequence of flying or falling. His voice achieves a clarity and level of control and projection rarely found among performers in the genre. Even when his voice registers barely above a whisper, every word is clearly heard.
Stevens’s live performance of “All of Me Wants All of You,” took a significant departure from the studio version. Though the lyrics illustrate the disillusionment of a waning romance, the live version was bass and electric guitar–driven, standing out as more sensual than the other songs on the set list.
After exhausting his new material, Stevens finally took to the mic to re-energize the sedate audience. Like a “JV basketball coach,” Stevens told the audience to, “Look alive,” and recalled watching “Bring it On Again (the sequel to the cheerleading classic, Bring it On).
The band picked up the pace by closing out the show with tracks from Illinois, Seven Swans and Greetings from Michigan albums. After a standing ovation, Stevens gave a final encore with the crowd favorite, “Chicago.” The song’s refrain, “All things go,” summed up the evening’s sentiments and sent the audience home on a lighter, more hopeful note.