I've seen two major concerts in the past couple of weeks. I saw U2 at the Forum last week and last night, Sufjan Stevens at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. I don't like to compare things, I much prefer to take things as they are. Each of the experiences had its highs and lows, its challenges and profundity, but there are some things that I wanted to say about why it is that one of these concerts sat so much better with me than the other. Let me begin by saying that I really like U2 and have seen them a number of times over the years-I have friends who work for them and their music has been a part of my musical canon over the years. That said, I must admit to being largely underwhelmed since Pop--I loved that experimental decade where all bets seemed to be off and exploration was the order of the day. They would probably argue that they are still that band, still experimenting, still pushing, but for me, that post Joshua Tree period was where I liked them the most. I think since then they lost an edge, perhaps an edge that is not possible to possess when you are aiing for maximum exposure and embrace, when stadium rock is your metier. All that aside, they put on a great show and you can count on it being a visceral, mutli-sensory experience. FRom Zoo TV until this last show, they have tweaked and played with the way live performance happens, how visuals and ideas are incorporated into a show, and they do it brilliantly, there is nothing like a U2 show in that regard. But my favourite moments at this last show were when there was little but them on the stage with no bells and whistles, just playing their guts out and drawing the crowd in with nothing but sheer musical potency. Perhaps I dream of a show where they just play their songs. I doubt that would happen and I admit that I often felt that without the visual additives much of this past show would reveal the lack in some of these songs. That sounds mean, I don't intend it to be--I like them an awful lot, how can you not really? I'm not a Bono-hater or a music curmudgeon, there is just always a little something that I miss when I see them. I'm being picky, but to some degree they asked for it. The desire to be the biggest band in the world has never been far from the surface, and why not go for broke? But, that doesn't happen without losing nuance and subtley, and U2 are as subtle as a brick. It actually felt a little desparate at times, particulalry in the sense you get that in they are trying to connect with a younger audience (missing from the show I went to, except for the young teens with their parents in the VIP section). But let none of that detract from their mastery of a medium, I would just actually question whether or not that is ultimately the medium the should have devoted such attention to mastering--but that's for them to decide and let's face it, the concert-going public seems to disagree with me. Conversely, I know little about Sufjan Stevens, I have a couple of albums and one or two extra songs and I went to the show because a friend invited me and had they not, his appearance in LA would have gone completely unnoticed by me. The show was very different to U2--it was the venue--arena versus concert hall, but it was also performance and content and focus and delivery. I felt as though I was invited into a meditative, contemplative environemt, the highs and lows, tension and release of the music delivered with as much emptiness and silence as volume and reverie. There were simple songs delivered in such sparse form, lasting less than a couple of minutes, accompanied by beautiful, subtle lighting, largely via a backdrop with geometric spaces that hinted at stained-glass. I had no expectations, no idea what to expect, which can be a really good thing when engaging cultural artifacts, especially when expectations are exceeded, and in this case I was floored-it was beautiful, hanting, melancholy, joyful and even a little boring at times (songs ended so abruptly every once in a while, there seemed to be no desire to tease out a song and see what else was there). The audience--mostly young hipsters (the very people U2 might be trying to connect with) sat with reverence and respect throughout the eveing, erupting in applause at the end of a song and then patiently wating for the next offering, as the band moved around the stage exchanging places and instruments. Not a single word from Stevens until at least an hour into the show and when he did speak the topic surpisingly was death and mortality-delievered with a wry sense of humour undoubtedly, but every single thing he said was a meditation on death. In fact, the only real 'rock and roll' balls out musical moment came late in the set at the end of a song,, where all the band members sang the refrain "we're all gonna die" over and over like a church choir as the music rose to a fever pitch that had not happened in the course of the entire show--it was breath-taking in its potency and when the song ended it hung in the air, like the unfinished business of living. And it was here that it struck me that there was something special going on--music focused on mortality and death yet hopefully inviting a joyful, almost playful approach to life in spite of that, in fact, because of that reality. It reminded me of the difference between a mega church and a small community of people comitted not to the large, the global, the grandiose, but to small aims, small aims that give shape to existence. It's no great secret that I prefer things smaller scale, I can appreciate the big spectacle, I just don't need much of it, and the themes I hunger for and am interested in don't fit well in the world of big things. I could no more imagine an audience of U2 fans chanting "we're all gonna die" and chanting it joyfully and meaningfully than I could imagine Steven's audinece doing a 'whoop-whoop call and responce.' Part of that is the difference in musical style and focus, so no judgmenent, just an observation, that perhaps in the music of Sufjan Stevens lies a gift not often mined with such delicate, almost surgical simplicity--that the key to life is not found in celebration and specatcle, in discovering a big life or even your 'best life,' as much as in quiet reflection on the frailty and fragility of finitude, on the contingency of existence, on the hopes and dreams, fears and desires that give life meaning. I left that show last night feeling as though I had been in the presence of the gods-much like a Nick Cave concert-the lyre of Orpheus, the god of music, who bridges the worlds and draws us into new spaces, seemed to have been weaving his magical mastery-moving us, guiding our imagination, evoking memories and dreams and creating spaces where meaning, awareness, enlightenment even, might occur--the gift of music telling us more about ourselves and our lives than perhaps any other art form.