April 9, 2012 in Show Reviews
The Magnetic Fields are the brainchild of songwriter and vocalist Stephin Merritt, who shares the stage with Claudia Gonson (piano and vocals), Shirley Simms (ukelele and vocals), Sam Davol (cello) and John Woo (guitar). Unlike most bands who are pegged as having ‘a reputation’ as a live act, The Magnetic Fields are anything but unpredictable, rowdy or ear-shatteringly loud. Instead, the group is known for playing some of the quietest and most downright polite shows around.
Prior to the Fields taking the stage, we were treated to a mostly acoustic set from Colorado band DeVotchKa. Headed by the distinctive voice of singer and guitarist Nick Urata, the band also included multi-instrumentalists Tom Hagerman and Shawn King. The set was a collection of Beirut-esque songs with earworm melodies accented by eclectic instrumentation including accordion, trumpet and violin. A laid-back but lovely opener, and fitting for the atmosphere that Merritt and crew seemed to be aiming for.
The ‘classic’ Magnetic Fields sound leans heavily toward synth-pop. Holiday and Charm of the Highway Strip could reasonably be called straight-up synth-pop records, and even as the band expanded its musical pallete on Get Lost and 69 Love Songs, then imposed a ‘no synth’ rule upon itself for i, Distortion and Realism, synth-pop has always been the sound that is most immediately associated with the group. Curious, then, that the stage was almost entirely free of synthesizers or anything else powered by electricity by the time they took the stage. Especially curious when this year’s once again synth-heavy Love at the Bottom of the Sea is factored into the equation.
The band takes an entirely different approach to live performances than one might expect. Songs from every corner of their output are painstakingly rebuilt into acoustic arrangements while maintaining the melodicism and subtle complexity of the originals. Merritt, unlike most bands’ primary vocalist/songwriters, doesn’t assume any sort of frontman position. He relegates himself to stage-right behind a table containing a portion of his (apparently rather sizable) instrument collection. The other band members stay seated as well, calmly producing these delicate songs at a volume just sufficient enough to fill the venue. Comparisons to high school musical recitals wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate if you could track down some extremely clever and musically-gifted high schoolers. From the performance to the venue to the reverently attentive crowd, this whole show bore little resemblance to a typical concert experience. Then again, The Magnetic Fields aren’t a typical band in many ways.
The combination of atmosphere and acoustic arrangements brought Merritt’s witty lyrics to the forefront of Friday’s performance. The setlist spanned twenty seven songs and drew from nearly every Magnetic Fields full-length, as well as including a few cuts from other Merritt projects and last year’s Obscurities compilation. Predictably, 1999′s magnum opus 69 Love Songs was the most heavily represented piece of the back catalog. It’s obviously got plenty of variety to choose from, but it also contains many of the band’s finest songs. ‘Time Enough For Rocking When We’re Old,’ ‘Busby Berkeley Dreams’ and ‘The Book of Love’ all shined brilliantly in their live arrangements, and offered some of the more resonant moments of the evening.
The real impact in Merritt’s songwriting has always existed in his melancholy songs more so than his directly comedic ones, and this night was no exception. The presence of some of the sadder 69 Love Songs and others like ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ or ‘It’s Only Time’ highlighted the degree to which the Love at the Bottom of the Sea material feels out of place in the band’s catalog. Songs like ‘Your Girlfriend’s Face,’ ‘My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre’ and ‘The Horrible Party’ actually got some pretty big laughs from an otherwise quiet audience, but lacked the subtly and substance of the tracks they were interspersed between. Wisely though, Merritt embraces brevity as the soul of wit, and even the weaker songs in the set never outstayed their welcome.
Even those left cold by the last several Magnetic Fields records would’ve had difficulty staying wholly dissatisfied through this set. Both Distortion and Realism were represented solely by their strongest respective song. Merritt, Gonson and Simms were also surprisingly talkative and jokey throughout the night, and Merritt’s baritone deadpan delivered some genuinely hilarious moments. He was evidently inspired to write ‘Goin’ Back to the Country’ upon seeing that same song title appear on the record jackets of five different rock bands. ‘Andrew in Drag’ resulted from a similar experience, he told us.
The group’s stage banter and general good humor seemed to acknowledge and embrace the oddities of its live show. One does not go into a Magnetic Fields concert expecting an energetic, flashy performance, and that’s fine. They were content to sit down and carefully construct these songs without pretense, and as an audience we were content to appreciate them that way. The strength of their best melodies and lyrics were not lost in the translation to an unorthodox live performance.
Sorry, no pictures apart from the one in the header up there. Berklee officially prohibits photography during all performances.