It is not without a certain surrealism that one looks around the Passionskirche in Berlin. The space is reminiscent of London’s Union Chapel (RIP) with slightly better maintained by its Teutonic congregation. The beer is cheap and the wine is cheaper. The pews are all full to bursting, and latecomers end up being seated on the marble floor of the aisle. The crowd is an unlikely blend of neo-folkies, muso-geeks and the resident Berlin Trendies, who invariably attend the hippest gigs in town. However, the atmosphere is refreshingly unpretentious and laid back.
No support band has been explicitly announced, so it is to somewhat bemused looks that a petite brunette with a wide mouth and a Princess Leia hairdo comes on strange and switches on the amp. All scepticism is replaced with awe as soon as she launches into an acapella intro of Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’. A voice so unexpectedly strong and full of character that you physically feel the entire audience collectively sit up and take notice. This elfin-like girl subsequently explains that they are called ‘The Brightest Diamond’ but consist of most of the members of ‘The Illinoisemakers’.
Their short set ends and they disappear into the chancel. However, it is not long before they reappear, dressed in matching cheerleader uniforms each bearing a distinctive ‘I’ on the front, accompanied by Sufjan. While he does not exude the manic charisma often demonstrated by other frontmen, his combination of goofiness and sincerity soon have the entire congregation enamoured. They immediately launch into ‘The 50 States Song’, a fitting prelude. All the songs in the first half are taken from his latest LP ‘Illinoise’ and most are preceded either by a specially written cheer (which incorporate hand movements and pom-poms) or a charming anecdote, some of which even had educational value (I now know more about Casimir Pulaski than I did when I arrived). Yet somehow, the whole spectacle never feels cheesy and it is the music itself which is the real highlight. The versatility of Sufjan Stevens and indeed the rest of the band is demonstrated by the effortless shifting from one instrument to another.
Amazingly, the band manage to recreate the grandiose sound and atmosphere of the album but without the use of any live strings. Instead the arrangements are simplified, but never in such a way as to lose the original impact of the songs had on the album. Songs like ‘Decatur’, ‘Chicago’ and ‘Jacksonville’ are all notably excellent, with Sufjan plucking the banjo, gazing almost wistfully and the rest of the band standing behind him producing an astounding bubble of sound which is simultaneously forceful and fragile.
After about 40 minutes, the band leaves the stage and go back into the Chancel, only to reappear about 5 minutes later minus the costumes and pom-poms, and continue the set with numbers from earlier Sufjan albums. The lack of theatricality placed emphasis more on the songs, which are likely to be less familiar than the more recent ones. The result is a more focused set of songs, which lack the punchy-pop quality of the opening half, but replaces it with a masterclass of writing and performance especially the title track of his debut LP ‘Seven Swans’. Having said this I did miss the costumes and the playful characters that it allowed the band to go into, and it is not without a smile on their faces that the band come back to the stage for one more encore and to receive their rapturous applause (again sporting their fetching cheerleader attire). One can not help leaving such a concert with a smile on your face and a song in your head. Detached cynicism be damned, for now.