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Recap: Sufjan Stevens @ Merrill Auditorium [4.14.2015]

Sufjan Stevens @ Merrill Auditorium 4.14.15 photo by Hannah Hays

Sufjan Stevens @ Merrill Auditorium 4.14.15 photo by Hannah Hays

Death is the elephant in the room of our lives. It’s one of the few universal inevitabilities we all face in our world, and yet we pretend it doesn’t exist and choose to ignore its impact until we’re directly faced with it. The thought of death, of losing our loved ones, or even ourselves, can paralyze us if we let it overcome us.

Sufjan Stevens confronts death directly on his new album, Carrie & Lowell, named for his mother and stepfather. Stevens’ mother passed away recently, and this new 11-song album is an auditory documentation of processing his loss and grief, as well. The result is a devastating, meditative, but ultimately hopeful understanding of death. It is Stevens’ most personal & introspective album to date; it is also among his very best work.

Carrie & Lowell is a more sparse effort than most anything prior in Stevens’ recent discography, trading in bombastic arrangements for more minimalist acoustic production. The “return-to-indie/folk” sound occasionally recalls the fingerpicked guitar and double-tracked vocals of the late Elliott Smith. Subtle orchestration and warm synthesizers round out the sound, resulting in the most intimate and serious sounding work for Sufjan Stevens’ career.

How would all of this translate to the stage, specifically the grandiose Merrill Auditorium? Flawlessly. Stevens presented a 5-piece ensemble that brought new life to the understated arrangements of his new record, while still retaining the essence of the album’s fragility. Merrill commands more of a “performance” vibe than that of a typical “concert,” thus rendering the crowd completely silent during and after each song. The lush acoustics of the theatre were absolutely perfect for both Stevens’ songs and the meditative aura of the evening. (side note – WHY aren’t there more concerts at Merrill Auditorium? This is the Carnegie Hall of Portland. The atmosphere and acoustics are matchless. It might be more expensive to put on a concert at Merrill, but the end result is worth every single penny. I really hope Merrill Auditorium hosts more events like this on a regular basis.)

Stevens switched between piano and 12-string guitar, with the occasional synth flourish. To hear his distinct voice fill a theatre in person was beyond what words can convey. His studio recordings are often crafted to perfection, so the live performance offered a nice contrast. The live arrangements were on-point, but now there were tinges of the human behind the songs taking center stage.

After opening with “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” from his Michigan album, Stevens & Co. performed the new album in its entirety. The first line of “Death With Dignity” sums up his new album in a nutshell: “Spirit of my silence, I can hear you/But I’m afraid to be near you.” “Should Have Known Better” is an instant Sufjan classic, one of the catchiest songs in his catalog. “Fourth of July” stood out in the middle of the set, with the repeating stark revelation that “we’re all gonna die.”

Shortly after this song, Sufjan spoke to the audience for the first time in the show. He openly spoke about how he’s been thinking about death and how to cope with it, and specifically wondering what happens to all of the energy that we put into our lives (and into other people) once they die. Where does the energy go? Sufjan surmised that that energy is passed down, that each one of us is living with the energy of our loved ones, and that we continue to pass it on. The crowd, both bewildered and inspired, let a moment pass before erupting in applause. One can only assume that presenting these songs to the public is as much a struggle as it is cathartic for the mourning musician.

Towards the end of the set, Sufjan spoke again and thanked the crowd for their patience with new material, and then indulged the fans looking for selections from his older albums. These songs took on a fuller, slightly psychedelic feel that evoked the more serious moments of The Flaming Lips’ symphonic sound, though “The Owl and the Tanager” from the All Delighted People EP was a real highlight, with Stevens alone at the piano, his falsetto wails bouncing off the theatre’s ceiling and fading away into the darkness. The encore, which stretched 5 songs, featured three from Sufjan’s esteemed Illinois album: “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois,” the haunting “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” and the rousing closer “Chicago.” At 21 songs, it was the longest show of Stevens’ tour thus far.

Cold Specks @ Merrill Auditorium 4.14.15 photo by Hannah Hays

Cold Specks @ Merrill Auditorium 4.14.15 photo by Hannah Hays

Cold Specks opened the show, with an impressive set that conjured a combination of Southern gospel soul and the moody mid-tempo sound of Radiohead, with a dash of PJ Harvey influence to boot.

Check out the full photo gallery (by Jeff Beam and Hannah Hays) and another video from the show below:

Record Store Day Maine 2015

By Anders J. Nielsen

This Saturday, April 18th, record stores around the state will participate in the 8th annual Record Store Day. It’s no surprise that Bull Moose has the biggest list of events for this new holiday, since record guru/longtime Bull Moose employee Chris Brown actually invented the holiday. If you have about two . . . → Read More: Record Store Day Maine 2015

State Theatre nabs The Decemberists and a game of dream double bills

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It’s of course no surprise to anyone reading this that the State Theatre announced another member of the millennial indie rock’s graduating class (Neutral Milk Hotel, Death Cab For Cutie, Interpol et al.) with The Decemberists playing a show on July 29 at the theatre itself.

It’ll be a great show of course (this . . . → Read More: State Theatre nabs The Decemberists and a game of dream double bills

Fur drop a new video for “Bronze” and announce album release show

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I’ve made it pretty clear by now that I’m a huge fan of everything that Greg Bazinet, Tara and Brian Cohen have been involved with musically. From their scrappy roots playing (for the most part) acoustic-tinged punk, to their all-out epic and final album under The Rattlesnakes banner, Spine..

But as some famous . . . → Read More: Fur drop a new video for “Bronze” and announce album release show

Sufjan Stevens is playing at Merrill Auditorium tomorrow, but you already knew that

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This is a strange one for me – as I was lucky enough to catch Sufjan Stevens the last time he played in Portland, which was at Port City Music Hall in 2009 (seen in a clip above). It was during that period of dormancy following the immense aura and lore of Sufjan Stevens . . . → Read More: Sufjan Stevens is playing at Merrill Auditorium tomorrow, but you already knew that

Friday Roundup: RVIVR, Action Bronson, AFRAID and First Friday

Lady Lamb

Lady Lamb performing at Port City last month, openers Cuddle Magic will take the stage at SPACE next week. PHOTO: HillyTown/Andrew Foster

It’s true — I’m not Dylan Martin, your usual HillyTown weekly Friday rounder-uper. Dylan is currently working on a more involved story for HillyTown that will be up next week (or so . . . → Read More: Friday Roundup: RVIVR, Action Bronson, AFRAID and First Friday

Tal National makes the journey from West Africa to SPACE this weekend

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A lot of things can be said about the effect of the Internet on music an it’s reach to potential audiences. Almost thirty years ago Paul Simon brought traditional Afropop music out of the incense heavy world of import clothing shops and thrust Graceland onto the main stage and record stores across the world . . . → Read More: Tal National makes the journey from West Africa to SPACE this weekend

Stop doing what you’re doing and listen to High Spirits

High Spirits

Okay, in all honesty sometimes we miss some pretty great local releases when they come out and just get to (hopefully) cover the subsequent touring following a release. Well, this is sort of like that — but sadly, not enough of the later.

I’m talking about High Spirits here — and specifically their most recent . . . → Read More: Stop doing what you’re doing and listen to High Spirits

Father John Misty makes the jump from Port City to The State

Hey, remember how totally great that Father John Misty show was back in 2013 at Port City Music Hall? Times were simpler then — and as recently announced — Father John Misty has hit the big time in the Portland market, supporting his newest album I Love You, Honeybear.

 

 

. . . → Read More: Father John Misty makes the jump from Port City to The State

Cuddle Magic goes from Lady Lamb opening to SPACE headliners

First of all, apologies for the lack of updates over here the ol’ HillyTown home — between the flu, SXSW, and multiple full-time jobs, things have been a bit busy at HQ. But no worries: we don’t want Hilly to fade into a Portland myth like The Taxis or Marie Stella.

Let’s start with one . . . → Read More: Cuddle Magic goes from Lady Lamb opening to SPACE headliners

Friday Roundup: Outdoor shows, new Belfast festival, Poopin’ Louie and more

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Apologies, y’all. I took the day off last week because of an unplanned vacation to BEING SICK IN MY BED, so we have some catching up to do in the Hilly Town Cinematic Universe. . . . → Read More: Friday Roundup: Outdoor shows, new Belfast festival, Poopin’ Louie and more

Arootsakoostik/Eurekakoostik/A-Roots Ramble Preview

By Anders J. Nielsen

Tricky Britches at Arootsakoostic – photo by No Idea Productions

 

Arootsakoostik, the ninth annual outdoor music festival in New Sweden, ME, is growing in the natural way (see our coverage of previous years here). What began as a project of passion for Aroostook County native Travis Cyr, has blossomed . . . → Read More: Arootsakoostik/Eurekakoostik/A-Roots Ramble Preview

Metal Feathers come out of hiding tonight at SPACE

Metal Feather’s performing at 2011’s HillyTown Party Barge

We hope you’ll forgive us for forgetting momentarily about Portland’s Metal Feathers — but we are quick to forgive lapses in activity for anything that we know has a proven track record in Portland over here at HillyTown.

So yes, the fact is that it’s been . . . → Read More: Metal Feathers come out of hiding tonight at SPACE

AFRAID drops new album — playing Poland Street show on Friday

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Poland Street

 

Oh no — is HillyTowncore becoming a thing again? We’ll slow down that descent soon and promise that we’ll be expanding our coverage as the winter hibernation of Portland starts to shake-off and new releases come our way.

For example, check out the new Haru Bangs Mixtape; or dare we consider . . . → Read More: AFRAID drops new album — playing Poland Street show on Friday

Friday Roundup: Blue is back, Mouth Washington, HI-DEF VIDZ and more

Spencer Albee and Walter Craven of 6gig in a recent video by Knack Factory.

Spencer Albee and Walter Craven of 6gig in a HI-DEF VID by Knack Factory.

I’m writing this roundup from my grown-up desk at my grown-up job, but I will assure you all that it’s just a facade. The true and only reason I have a job is so I can take an hour out . . . → Read More: Friday Roundup: Blue is back, Mouth Washington, HI-DEF VIDZ and more