It’s been two years now since acclaimed folk/indie artist Sufjan Stevens released his acclaimed album “Carrie and Lowell” to the world. Since then, he’s been touring domestically and internationally, bringing his famous theatrics to the stage. Now he’s released a live recording from the album’s subsequent tour. The live album was recorded during his fall tour of 2015, at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center in South Carolina on November 9th, 2015, and features the full tracklist of “Carrie and Lowell” plus a few extras.
The live album comes as a nice surprise before Stevens releases a collaborative album this summer called “Planetarium” along with Nico Muhly, James McAlister and The National’s Bryce Dessner. Before fans embark on that intergalactic journey of songs, they’ll have the opportunity to relive the live experience the artist curates so majestically on stage. Along with new takes on songs from “Carrie and Lowell,” the live album features a recording of Stevens and tour opener Gallant performing their own rendition of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” for the audience.
In stark contrast, the “Hotline Bling” encore comes right after a 12-minute improvisation through the outro of “Blue Bucket of Gold,” the closing song on “Carrie and Lowell.” Still, the quixotic jam is arguably the highpoint of the live album, which showcases Stevens inexhaustible ability to provide fresh, cosmic takes on his songs for his live audience. As thick synths and soaring voices soar across the field of sound, one can almost imagine the ecstatic places the audience is being taken to, especially after soaking in the religious imagery of “Blue Bucket of Gold:”
“Search for things to extol
Friend, the fables delight me
My blue bucket of gold
Lord, touch me with lightning”
Sufjan’s ability as an improviser goes back many years. I can fondly remember one Austin City Limits performance in particular, where his rendition of “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us” sent shivers through my body as the song evolved into slow changes of strings and horns, spare piano behind them. Colorful wings stretched out from his back and I was immediately struck breathless by the fathomless talent of the artist.
Fast forward to Stevens’ 2015 tour, which I was lucky enough to experience in Denver. Like in Charleston, I got to soak in a beautiful backdrop of childhood images and the Oregon coast as he glided through the set list with ease and grandeur. There was such a wonderful mix of experimentation and comfort in the way he handled the songs, and “Carrie and Lowell Live” is an excellent showcase of that. No song sounds perfectly like the album version, but just familiar enough to inspire the same feelings. It’s such a nice contrast to bands that are content to perform their songs exactly like they sounded on the album.
One of my favorite moments may be when “Should Have Known Better” breaks down into a dance track, Stevens grooving at the microphone as he wanders through childhood memories and emotions:
“I Should have known better
Nothing can be changed
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
Should have wrote a letter
Explaining what I feel
That empty feeling”
Fans will delight in this opportunity to delve deeper into Sufjan’s masterwork, “Carrie and Lowell,” experiencing the sound journey of his music once again through the downloadable album or the accompanying video. With his childhood and raw emotions on display for the audience, Stevens takes his fans on a thrilling and heartbreaking ride. This is a sacred journey not to be missed.