This being my first time seeing The Magnetic Fields playing live, I had no idea what to expect. Combining a band that has a long history with a classy downtown seated theater venue that has a much longer one, on a Friday night, I had my suspicions that I might sitting amongst a crowd that was apathetic, merely out on a Friday night to see a band they liked when they released 69 Love Songs back in college. I was totally wrong. The crowd at The Orpheum Theater was attentive, passionate and grateful throughout the evening. I still believe I was amongst a bookish bunch, but heck, so are The Magnetic Fields, and so am I, and together we had a great time.
I had previously seen opening act Bachelorette play at the El Rey Theater, supporting Low. Although Bachelorette is a one-person act (that person being New Zealand native Annabel Alpers), the project’s sound was much more suited to this larger venue than the last in which I saw it performed. Alpers’ grand compositions really found space in which to breathe inside the tall theater, and her swirling synths rose up to the very top of the seemingly-cavernous venue. At times the basis of a Bachelorette song seems as though it could easily transform into an 80s pop gem, but instead Alpers prefers to keep the songs introspective, using a sing-songy drawl with added reverb to bring character to the sound. I think another advantageous aspect for her of playing at The Orpheum was that she was playing to a seated audience; an audience that could get comfortable and really concentrate on what she was doing – which can seem simple, but further inspection at all the equipment she had strewn around her paints a different picture. From this seated vantage point the crowd is more easily lulled into the sound and once they were there, they were certainly more than happy to inhabit that warm aural space for the duration of her 45 minute set.
For a band that made quite a big deal about making a return to synthesizers for their latest album, The Magnetic Fields had surprisingly few onstage with them for their performance – precisely one in fact, and a very small one at that, placed atop Stephin Merritt’s pump organ, alongside his melodica. This, I quickly came to realize as they opened with i’s lead off track “I Die,” was because these instruments (grand piano, Spanish guitar, acoustic guitar and cello accompanied Merritt’s aforementioned array) were what the band were most comfortable with, and with them they could draw from any time period in their 20+ year history. The second song of the evening was “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off,” the first of many cuts played from their beloved 69 Love Songs, and Merritt’s sardonic drawl sounded more fitting than ever. It wasn’t until the third song of the set when they finally played something new, opting for “Your Girlfriend’s Face” to brighten the mood with its chipper lyrics and Claudia Gonson taking over lead vocals for the first time.
Throughout the night the band strived not only to satisfy fans of all ages (9 of their 10 albums were represented in the 27-song set) but to surprise them too. This was both in the non-obvious song choices (the delightful b-side “Plant White Roses,” and debut album cut “Tar-Heel Boy” are just a couple from out of left-field), and the decision to have songs sung by different members than those who sung on the recorded version – Merritt taking the lead on “Come Back From San Francisco” was probably the high watermark on this, with his deep booming voice betraying more agony than the wistful vocals on the Shirley Simms-sung studio version. The new songs nestled in nicely amongst the older ones, aided greatly by the fact that that the garish synths of Love At The Bottom of the Sea were replaced by more traditional instruments (although kazoo was used on “The Horrible Party” to add some more of that color). This made a lot of them sound like theme tunes to children’s cartoons (by no means a bad thing) and some it changed more profoundly; none more so than peppy album highlight “Quick!,” which became a melancholic affair amidst the minor keys of the piano and cello.
Although it would be foolish to waste my time and yours by mentioning all the highlights of the set, there are a couple that should be given attention. For me, it was the sadder songs that really stood out, from the heartbreaking “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” brought to life by Merritt’s pump organ and impassioned vocals; to “It’s Only Time,” a song full of almost foolish hope. Before the final song of the set both Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms oddly left the stage, but it became clear why as the three remaining men played “Smile! No One Cares How You Feel,” a song officially attributed to The Gothic Archies and one for the true Stephin Merritt fans to savor.
The Magnetic Fields were not an exciting band to watch, all five of them remaining firmly locked at their stations all night, but their grace and good humor made up for any lacking in stage presence. The band were more often than not ready to offer up quips or stories behind any of their songs, unafraid to show their age (Merritt seemed bamboozled that the lead single from their new album, “Andrew In Drag,” was released as a ‘limited edition’) and consistently provoking laughs from the audience (a brief discussion between Gonson and Merritt about who they’d forgotten to invite was just one highlight). All in all, The Magnetic Fields have reached the point in their career where they’re ready to please audiences, because that seems to be what pleases them (although they jokingly admonished a shouted request from the crowd, stating that they hadn’t played requests in years). By performing 27 songs from all eras of the band, and each played with as much passion and fervor as the day they were written, The Magnetic Fields have ensured that they are still a must-see band in 2012.
The Magnetic Fields set:
A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
Your Girlfriend’s Face
Come Back From San Francisco
No One Will Ever Love You
I’ve Run Away to Join The Fairies
Plant White Roses
Drive On Driver
My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre
Time Enough for Rocking
The Horrible Party
Smoke and Mirrors
Goin’ Back to the Country
Andrew in Drag
Busby Berkeley Dreams
The Book of Love
Fear of Trains
You Must Be Out of Your Mind
It’s Only Time
Smile! No One Cares How You Feel [The Gothic Archies cover]
Forever and a Day