Live Review: Sufjan Stevens, Ngaiire

29 February 2016 | 11:09 am | Stephanie Liew

"We're hypnotised and on the verge of panic. And then the roller coaster stops. We're spent."

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Two women in matching dresses stand behind synths and get a buzz going before Ngaiire slowly walks out between them, taking her place front and centre, behind a sample pad and the mic. They kick off with Around from her debut album, Lamentations. The three-part harmonies are flawless, blending into humming synths, the three performers simply lit with a single spotlight each.

"It is slightly terrifying standing in the middle of Hamer Hall," says Ngaiire — even though she played the State Theatre in Sydney a few nights ago, which was also "terrifying" — but she shows no sign of nerves, her world-class vocals steady and powerful. Once doesn't have the same potency in the stripped-back set-up as it does on record, but Count To Ten's slow build and high notes induce shivers and the gospel-tinged ballad Fall Into My Arms would make a believer out of anyone.

A Sufjan Stevens show is a multi-sensory affair, and it feels like you could watch him perform a dozen times and have a completely different experience each time. He and his four bandmates have an electric chemistry, and it's gratifying to watch them communicate through body language and non-verbal cues, as they switch instruments — piano, percussion, trombone, synths, various stringed things — for each new song. Tonight's show sees Stevens performing in two acts: the first act, mainly songs from his latest, Carrie & Lowell; and the second, acoustic renditions of cherished tracks from previous albums.

The Age Of Adz gets a look in not only through highlights Vesuvius (complete with vibrant, geometric animations of a volcano and fire splashed across the LED screen panes), but its sound extends through the freak-folkified renditions of many C&L songs. Drawn To The Blood transforms from a melancholic soliloquy into a twisted knot of alien synth sounds as thin beams shoot out into the audience. All Of Me Wants All Of You enters slow-jam territory, a soulful beat injected into it; Stevens even gets his grind on, playfully body-rolling and working his shoulders before a chaotic end. It's chapel service on the streets, extra-terrestrial summoning in the sheets. Standout Fourth Of July has us feeling our most alive when the band jam on the refrain, "We're all gonna die," purple lights fanning across the hall — a reminder of our mortality never sounded so good. To finish the first act, the million dotted lights reflecting off the disco balls peeking through the LED screens make us feel like we are no longer on earth but floating in space, and the ambient instrumentals lull us into a false sense of security (and give us mad ASMR) before it all turns into abrasive, avant-garde noise, the disco balls spinning faster and faster so that the lights flicker furiously. We're hypnotised and on the verge of panic. And then the roller coaster stops. We're spent.

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After that intense workout, act two is a welcome respite. Stevens addresses us for the first time, thanking us genuinely and apologising for almost exclusively writing songs in "the key of death". The musicians gather around one mic, playing fan faves such as The Dress Looks Nice On You; "murder ballad" John Wayne Gacy, Jr; and To Be Alone With You ("This one's happy!" says Stevens). Casimir Pulaski Day is a fine mess, Stevens and his back-up singer both struggling to remember the lyrics throughout. Stevens also has trouble with the high notes and admittedly his vocals are not the best we've heard them tonight ("I can't do this any more... I'm getting too old"), but it's actually hilarious and both band and audience seem have fun with it. Stevens recounts his first experience with death as a child, which has an ultimately positive outcome — the message being "death can be a helpful tenant... we can live more fully. That's what I'm trying to celebrate this evening" — before Chicago closes out the night. As always, an unforgettable show from a master songwriter, storyteller and musician.