Sufjan Stevens and Animal Collective - The Paradiso, Amsterdam 27/10/05

Grass, incidentally, is Animal Collective's three-minute pop song – at least it would be if the chorus wasn't screamed.

In my review of Sufjan Stevens' latest album I made the point that it was too long – it clocks in at almost eighty minutes. What would eighty minutes of Sufjan in the flesh be like then? Well, as soon as Sufjan bounded on to the stage any apprehension I felt faded away. He arrived in a kind of loose fitting catsuit, made up of the American flag (minus the stripes). The female members of his backing band dressed as cheerleaders; the male members wore nerdy college sports attire complete with sweatbands. Sufjan peered out to the crowd from beneath his baseball cap and then the concert began. It was immediately noticeable that this was no ordinary gig, and not just because of the music itself. It was, simply put, the most respectful audience that I have ever come across.

 

 

Except when applauding and cheering the crowd said not a word. The background chatter that always intrudes through the quiet moments of a set was not to be heard. You might not have been able to hear a pin drop but you could hear a plastic pint pot falling onto the floor. This show of respect from the audience comes, in part at least, from love. There is the genuine love of the music and there is also the love that means the tickets are snapped up by genuine fans. Most gigs featuring a 'name' tend to have a group of people who are there to be seen and who don't have any actual interest in the music itself.

 

There were no such people here tonight, and I think if some oaf had spoken out he (or she) would have been evicted sharpish. The crowd adored, and the subject of their adoration knew how to work them. In one sense Sufjan et al trod a very fine line. On the one hand the songs are sophisticated and clever. Equally the band seemed as happy to switch between instruments as Sufjan himself. On the other hand there were plenty of faux-naif touches and these can on occasion be incredibly aggravating. So, for example, they create a feeble human pyramid on stage and in so doing elicit whoops of delight from the audience.

 

 

Later, Sufjan leads the band in making YMCA style arm/hand movements. As I say, this could have been very annoying but it wasn't. Part of the reason for the respect shown to Sufjan and the band was, I think, the warmth that clearly radiated from the stage. Such exuberance and warmth is hard to fake and indeed, the longer the gig went on so the more it became one big love-in. The intervals and diversions on stage also meant that the problem that I had with the album – too much too similar – faded away. Whilst the vast majority of the show was taken up with songs from Illinois the slightly cloying feel of the album never surfaced tonight. The live arena gave the songs the room to breathe that they required. That they were delivered by a genuine showman, with a fantastic backing band and a desire to truly entertain, means that the next time I go and see him I too will enter the hall with the reverence that the rest of the audience displayed tonight.

 

Animal Collective

 

The same night as Sufjan, but a smaller room and a different kind of audience. This one was more predominantly male and the air of expectation here was different. It was, I think, more confrontational; more 'show us what you are capable of'. I felt something akin to this because I couldn't imagine how the four of them were going to be able to realise their recent album Feels on stage.

 

 

The majority of tracks on that album are so multi-layered, whilst also being so light and airy, that I feared the performance could end up as something of a muddy sludge. Eventually the band took the stage - to the left Avey Tare slouched around in a cap with huge earflaps. At the back Panda Bear stood up behind the drums whilst to the right sat Deakin with his guitar. Up front, and dominating everything with his box of tricks, was Geologist, complete with a miner style spotlight on his forehead. (To their mothers they are David, Noah, Josh and Brian.) The stage itself was very dark and, tonight at least, so was the sound. On record there is an incredible mix between walls of noise and what might almost be thought of as twee melodies. (Indeed, the band names hint at this dichotomy.) The live experience wisely focuses on the former. Initially this is slightly off-putting and Grass in particular doesn't really soar as it does on record. Grass, incidentally, is Animal Collective's three-minute pop song – at least it would be if the chorus wasn't screamed. In fact some of the best moments of the gig come from the screams. When Geologist can free himself from his minidiscs and mixing desk he screams like a good 'un.

 

 

Everyone else joins in when they can too. So instead of shimmering synths and delicate harmonies we are given a far more rigorous workout of the Feels album. Importantly, the racket they do make still manages to convey something of the shamanistic and incantatory aspects of the album. Onstage the band were very focussed. Geologist, when not screaming was very tight-lipped as he peered over his controls. Panda Bear hit the drums with everything he had and Deakin looked disarmingly like Kevin Shields as he produced similar walls of noise from his guitar. No one, it is safe to say, smiled. Except for the audience, of course, especially as they came back to perform Kids on Holiday for the encore – not the best song off Sung Tongs, their previous album, but certainly the most appropriate for an encore. 

 

Words: Chris Dawson.