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Sufjan Stevens: Shepherds Bush Empire, London: Monday, Oct 17

Ladies and gents, we’re in the presence of genius

Sufjan Stevens: Shepherds Bush Empire, London: Monday, Oct 17

Sufjan Stevens, Detroit’s only banjo-flaunting musical historian, is wearing a fetching all-in-one jumpsuit adorned with the stars and stripes. His band, dressed as cheerleaders, wave pom-poms and form a human pyramid. An inflatable Superman joins in the fun. And everyone here is loving every minute.

But then, that’s the kind of devotion Sufjan Stevens inspires – pretty special for a singer promoting a concept album about the state of Illinois. Not everyone here is nostalgic for the US Midwest, surely.

‘(Come On Feel The) Illinoise’ is the second part (after 2003’s ‘Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State’) of Stevens’ highly ambitious plan to create a complete musical map of the USA. Both the conceptual scope of the project and the music itself recalls such cosmic American benchmarks as Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ and Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral’ – high praise indeed, but tonight’s performance proves he is unquestionably up there with such lauded acts.

So, with the mainman alternating between banjo and piano, we get a touching, non-judgemental reflection of the life of a serial killer (‘John Wayne Gacy, Jnr’) and an ode to the aforementioned Superman (‘The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts’) while six-piece band the ‘Illinoisemakers’ cook up an intoxicating stew of lo-fi indie pop, acid folk and classic rock.

The deliriously uplifting ‘Chicago’ brings to an end one of the greatest gigs NME has seen all year.

Alan Woodhouse

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