Live Review: Sufjan Stevens, Ngaiire

24 February 2016 | 2:12 pm | Hannah Story

"The room is dark while blue spotlights swirl around as Stevens and co repeat: "We are all gonna die.""

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Ngaiire in front of a drum machine opened the night with Around, with assistance from Sarah Belkner and Elana Stone on backing vox, keys and synth. She's a formidable singer - her voice is exquisite, setting a contemplative atmosphere. But she's also not much of a performer, failing mostly to engage with a crowd distracted by plush State Theatre seats. Her triple j Hottest 100 placer Once received the most attention, and deservedly so: a tight-yet-laidback pop hit.

The crowd were on their best behaviour for Sufjan Stevens - reverent, preparing themselves for a show that effectively functioned as a collective mourning for Stevens' late mother Carrie. We all know by now about the birth of his latest record, Carrie & Lowell, named for his mother and stepfather - we know that the record is a brutally honest encounter with grief. The record tonight was played in full - although out of order, with Futile Devices from The Age Of Adz thrown into the mix. The recital is made affecting on stage by lighting and projections - we first glimpse Stevens and his band through roaming red spotlights; behind him are panels almost like the windows in a church, onto these footage from Stevens' childhood and images of the brutish and beautiful American landscape, canyons and oceans, are projected. The live arena draws out the complexity and layers in the record. Opening with album opener Death With Dignity and Should Have Known Better, Stevens and band cry out warbled anguish. A decidedly funkier All Of Me Wants All Of You gave Stevens a chance to whip out the daggy dance moves, a refreshing change of pace from the otherwise sombre mood in the room. Set highlight, after powerful single The Only Thing, was an extended Fourth Of July, a magic, liberating moment, confronting one's own mortality, feeling outside oneself: the room is dark while blue spotlights swirl around as Stevens and co repeat: "We are all gonna die." Eugene had Stevens almost in solo mode, illuminated by a spotlight with band off to the side on backing vocals. The end of the set came with Blue Bucket Of Gold, lights swirling, sounds carrying through the room. He deserved the standing ovation.

Our encore is a half-hour greatest hits collection - a kind of upbeat sadness ("Instead of playing new songs about death, we're gonna play old songs about death," Stevens says), the band gathered front of stage, swapping guitars, banjos, more throughout. This is the first time Stevens decided to engage with the audience directly, telling us about life as motion, and how even Prince knows the importance of being still. He started with For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti, and the crowd remained quiet, awed. The Dress Looks Nice On You and Heirloom follow, before the crux of the set, three moving songs, one(all) of which will make you cry: To Be Alone With You, John Wayne Gacy, Jr and Casimir Pulaski Day - Stevens encouraged us to sing along to the close of the latter. Chicago finished us off, and we remained in love with Stevens, all things go, grow, know - we left the venue.