Why You Should See Sufjan Stevens in Concert


A Concert Review from Charlotte, North Carolina

Any time you have the chance to catch Sufjan Stevens live in concert, drop what you’re doing and go!  A bunch of psychologists and counselors here at Shrink Tank did just that, catching him in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Instead of one person writing up a review, we thought it’d be more insightful to have a conversation about the concert from those that attended.  Here’s a conversation about the concert between Dave Verhaagen, Kristin Daley, Rachel Kitson, and Jonathan Hetterly.

Dave – Earlier this year, I said I only had two acts that I absolutely had to see in concert in the coming years: Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire.  I still haven’t seen Arcade Fire, but I had an embarrassment of riches with Sufjan this year.  Jonathan, you and I saw him earlier this year in Durham, North Carolina and then again this week on the same tour in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Twice in one year and I haven’t even been that good of a boy!  I’ve seen well over 150 concerts and the Durham concert was easily in my top three best concerts ever, so I had no expectation that the Charlotte show would match it.  While I believe the Durham show was the strongest of the two, this one was also terrific in its own right.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“The backdrop in many songs was evocative of a cathedral.”[/mks_pullquote]Jonathan – This is the third Sufjan concert I’ve seen.  I caught him up in Asheville, North Carolina during his Age of Adz tour.  Let me tell you, that was one of the weirdest, boldest, and creative concerts I’ve ever seen.  The Durham show you and I caught back in May was on the other end of the pendulum.  It was intimate, inward looking, and very somber.  The mood and atmosphere was a combination of a therapy session and a memorial service played out in music.  I agree that it was an all-timer of a concert experience.

Dave – I’ll never forget that first hour of the Durham show.  Sufjan played the first hour in near-darkness and it had the effect of making the audience feel like we were almost voyeurs, looking in on a very intimate event.  It was definitely the most emotionally moving show I’ve ever

Image from Emmanuel Afolabi
Image from Emmanuel Afolabi

experienced.  Carrie & Lowell is a deeply personal album and somehow it become even more revealing and intimate in the concert hall.  In Charlotte, he sprinkled songs from other albums into the opening set and while it was less inward and solemn, it was still brilliant.  I found the Durham show more emotionally moving and even profoundly spiritual, whereas I found Charlotte to be more artful and experimental. Both were ultimately beautiful things.

Jonathan – I found his concert in Charlotte to be very intimate, but also a little more playful and loose.  I remember at one point in Durham he wiped his face and I couldn’t tell if he was wiping away sweat or tears.  But it confirmed to me that Sufjan was pouring out his heart and his grief in his performance.  This third time around, I saw more of his weird, brash, and bombastic side.  But enough about comparing this show to earlier shows on this tour.  Rachel, what did you think of the show?

Rachel – I really enjoyed it. While I think there would have been better attendance at a Friday or Saturday night show, it was perfect for midweek entertainment. It was my first time seeing him live and I had heard lots of interesting things about his shows and watched the Austin City Limits recording when he was in Chicago in 2012 (the butterfly wing phase…) on PBS—so it was on my bucket list of live performances I’d like to check out.

A Nostalgic and Mournful Celebration

Kristin – This also was my first Sufjan concert and it was one of the most visually appealing concerts in my history of concerts. From the opening song, paired with amazing videos of Sufjan as a child (I am hoping those were real) to some of the more intense light displays, the show built steadily on itself into a full crescendo. My friend commented at one point that she felt that the concert was a deep tissue massage, and we both agreed that it felt like traveling through some deep emotion, both internally and in a voyeuristic manner through Sufjan’s grief and loss.

Rachel – Absolutely it was a very audio-visual and visceral performance experience.  There was obviously a lot of attention paid to the audience’s perception and the lighting effects really included and incorporated the audience into the performance. I found it interesting that the spotlights swept out on us, sort of highlighting our existence as part of the concert itself. The subject matter of a lot of the songs was deeply personal and romantically macabre, and at times I felt like I was channeling my adolescent self as the music resonated. He really puts his own voice on the line, and I enjoyed getting to hear it live. The backdrop in many songs was evocative of a cathedral to me, however he used a lot of nature images, which evoked this “nature as a higher power” theme for me, which I thought was cool. I also enjoyed some of the other lighting image effects/patterns that were more abstract and seemed to pulsate like life forms of their own. I think it all was very well and obviously intentionally chosen to drive a theme and mood. I enjoyed Fourth of July and the solo acoustic stuff. He used a lot of effects on the sound as well, and sometimes they were cool but sometimes it was too much/drawn out for my liking.

Kristin – One of my favorites images used was the song with the footage of him (or a small child that looked like him) running on the beach with his kite. The beach appeared several times, but it was pretty stunning when it was paired as a stable shot, time sped up, over one song. The light show that signaled the end of his new album and the start of his older music was intense, and actually induced a fair bit of nausea.


Jonathan – I couldn’t agree more with you both regarding the lights and the videos.  Sufjan is not just a musician, he’s an artist and a performer.  The videos and use of lights contributed to the songs and helped build the mood and tone.  They weren’t merely for showmanship.  There were several specific instances where the visuals were in perfect sync with the songs.  The red lighting that was used during “Drawn to the Blood” was haunting.  The spotlights that shown on the audience during “Fourth of July” when he repeatedly sang the lines “we’re all gonna die” created an eerie sense that the audience was now a character in the song.  And the set closer, “Blue Bucket of Gold” created this cosmic “freak out” light and sound display that evoked some weird time and space travel.[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”200″ size=”20″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“His shows do what the best concerts do: they provide an experience that you cannot have any other way.”[/mks_pullquote]

Dave – I agree about the end of “Blue Bucket of Gold”.  The band went into that trippy ethereal jam that seems to last forever. It was almost trance-inducing with the mirror balls shooting light through the auditorium. The conclusion of that song,  with its chest-thumping, teeth-rattling bass that you feel throughout your whole body, is one of those moments you can only get from a live event where you feel like you are transported into something that feels truly transcendent.  I also loved how the audience sang along to the refrain “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve made a lot of mistakes” to his most famous song “Chicago”.  It was oddly moving and emotional in a way that cannot be fully captured unless you were in the room.

You Used to Call Me on Your Cellphone!

Dave – Of course, I also have to mention his choice to end the show with his cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling”.  He was joined onstage by his opener, Gallant, who has a mighty sweet voice.  It was a surprisingly fun way to end the night.

Kristin – I was completely grateful for the comedy of the final song. I feel that the addition of this element confirmed my sense that there is a musical genius residing in him. If he had not created that note of relief, there would have been a possibility that I would have remained under a pretty dark cloud for a few days, simply by all the emotion that was triggered within the music. The song demonstrated range, and also created the perfect pop of color, sound, and joy to allow for a feeling of wellbeing. Everything could be right in a world that also allows for pain and heartache.

Jonathan – The left-field humor and sincerity behind “Hotline Bling” is what Sufjan pulled off with most of his songs during the Age of Adz tour.  I know that album has a lot of detractors, but I like it and it was a once in a lifetime concert experience.  Imagine two hours of “Hotline Bling” style performances.

Overall Grade

Dave – So what grade would you give the concert?  I’d give it somewhere in the A- range.  The Durham show was one of the few concerts I’ve ever seen that would earn an A+ for me, so I found myself unwittingly comparing the two shows and slightly downgrading this show, but taken on its own merits, it was definitely in the A- range. The bottom line for me is that his shows do what the best concerts do: they provide an experience that you cannot have any other way. You can’t get it by listening to the songs on your phone or your car; you can’t get it from watching it on a screen. You have to be in the room.  For Sufjan, I’m glad I was in the room. (A-)

Kristin – This show was one of my top 10 concert experiences. The awesome part of that is that I only knew the title of 2 songs for the entire show. (A-)

Rachel – I enjoyed the show.  It was beautiful to watch and a lot of thought was put into it. Sufjan has always been an artist I like very much and appreciate (he’s always refreshing to hear on my playlist) but has never totally rocked my world. I have a deep appreciation for his skills and attention to/appreciation for aesthetics and how he seems to push and challenge his art form.  He is immensely talented but sometimes his singing comes off as a little too precious to me; and as a fan of his earlier acoustic work, all the electronics, chimes, and effects at this show underwhelmed me. (A-)

Jonathan – When I stopped comparing it to his concert at the beginning of this tour, I realized that this was a solid A performance.  I’m at the opposite end of Kristin.  I knew all the songs and could sing all the lyrics.  I love all the big and small changes that occur when he performs them live in concert.  I like a little bit of quirky and crazy Sufjan.  (A)

Carrie & Lowell Album Review

Sufjan’s Webpage

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Charlotte, NC Ovens Auditorium


  1. Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)
  2. Death With Dignity
  3. Should Have Known Better
  4. Drawn to the Blood
  5. Eugene
  6. Stone
  7. The Only Thing
  8. Fourth of July
  9. No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
  10. Carrie & Lowell
  11. All of Me Wants All of You
  12. The Owl and the Tanager
  13. Vesuvius
  14. Futile Devices
  15. Blue Bucket of Gold


  1. Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
  2. Abraham
  3. For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
  4. Casimir Pulaski Day
  5. Chicago (Acoustic Version)
  6. Hotline Bling (Drake cover)

About Dave Verhaagen

Dave-Verhaagen-is-a-squareDave Verhaagen is an author, psychologist, Comic-Con panelist, bad magician, and general nuisance. He’s also a contributor to the Shrink Tank podcast.



About Rachel Kitson

Rachel-kitson-updated-portrait-200x300Rachel enjoys blogging about pop-culture through a psychological lens. Topics of interest include celebrity culture, disturbing trends, social media, and other existential predicaments. She has been interviewed by Vice, Refinery 29, Expert Beacon, and contributed to Politini and Entertainment Shrinkly podcasts.


About Kristin Daley

Dr.-Kristin-Daley_avatar_1426858288-96x96 2Dr. Kristin Daley’s ego is still fragile enough that she prefers to be called Dr. Daley. She is a self-proclaimed science geek and can be a world class rule follower. Her personal pet peeve is people breaking the rules of the scientific method or any other rules in life. Her favorite rules (written by her) are the two-song rule (only buy the album when you are sure you love two songs) and the dollar-per-wear rule (clothing is worth its price when you can get one dollar per wear). Your life will thank you for adhering to these rules.

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