When he released last year’s radical album The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens reinforced his longstanding creative distance from most of his peers. In the wake of a mysterious nervous illness, he was inspired to write again by the late Royal Robertson. A paranoid schizophrenic outsider artist and self-proclaimed prophet, his individualism struck a fresh, if unsurprising chord with Stevens. Adz can be digested independently of Robertson’s work easily enough – in the downloading age, many listeners won’t even have noticed the album cover – but he was brought to the fore by an audacious multimedia show at the Manchester Apollo.
At close to 150 minutes, the bulk of the performance was a masterclass in colour. Stevens and his merry band of nine singers, dancers and instrumentalists donned neon stripes, vibrant capes and other appendages (wigs, wings, streamers, glitter balls and what-have-you) to match the brightly-coloured style of Robertson’s paintings and drawings. Not to mention their accomplished ensemble performance, which matched the visual aspects with rich musical colour.
A crystal clear soundsystem captured the full eccentric range of sounds, from Stevens’ appropriation of Auto-Tune during the epic ‘Impossible Soul’ to the Moog-y improvisation of ‘Futile Devices’, from the squelchy beats of ‘Too Much’ to the tender backing vocals of ‘The Owl and the Tanager’. In an otherwise relentless gig, the few quiet interludes (as well as ‘Tanager’, highlights included ‘Sister’ and R.E.M. cover ‘The One I Love’) were designed to give the performers a rest.
Another annex took the form of a seemingly impromptu short lecture on the life and work of Royal Robertson, which fascinated a larger body of the crowd than it left bemused. Robertson’s apocalyptic visions were respectfully and dramatically animated by the video artist Deborah Johnson. Her videos brought his visions to life, interspersing creatures and spaceships with explosions of symmetrical and concentric stars. Most audacious was the accompaniment to ‘I Want To Be Well’, which captured and illuminated as well as anything the deep conncetion between the two minds at the heart of the performance.