The Magnetic Fields at First Avenue, 11/13/12
Photo By Erik Hess
The Magnetic Fields
With Gal Musette
First Avenue, Minneapolis
November 13, 2012
Anyone who goes to a performance by the Magnetic Fields should be prepared to have their heart broken a time or two during the set. God knows that the band sure has experienced it over their distinguished 20-plus years in the music industry. Stephin Merritt and company's songs may be rather acerbic and doleful, but at least they can laugh about the painful experiences that inspired them, and those moments of engaging levity on stage provided a nice balance to the anguished material the quintet drew from during their stirring 95-minute, 27-song set at a stone-silent First Avenue on Tuesday night.
The band, who were playing the first night of their brief six-show fall tour, put everyone at ease the moment they took to the stage, as pianist/vocalist Claudia Gonson admitted, "We learned earlier that it's an urban myth that Prince owns this club." While Merritt joked as he settled in behind his suped-up harmonium, "Please, as a good Magnetic Fields audience, remain motionless during the performance, otherwise we'll just leave."
The band took a moment to praise their 14-year-old opener, Gal Musette, causing Merritt to chime in that he, too, was writing songs when he was 14. Gonson challenged him, saying she'd love to hear a song he wrote from that time, and Merritt asked Shirley Simms, "Do you know the three chords?" They then launched into a sportive rendition of a short song called "Beach-a-Boop-Boop," from Merritt's Obscurities record that he and Simms wrote 30 years ago. It seemed that the band, and the crowd, were clearly settled in (and laughing) by this point.
Photo By Erik Hess
Gonson then brought a semblance of order to the proceedings, asking everyone to "fast forward a few years" as the band eased into a tender version of "I Die," which got the set off to a poignant start. But rather than dwell on the raw sentiment expressed by that number, Merritt playfully introduced a bouncy rendition of 69 Love Songs' "A Chicken With its Head Cut Off," by saying, "This is a song about an unfortunate barnyard animal. The first of many." The lighthearted intros would continue throughout the set, frequently offsetting the weighty subject matter of the songs themselves with facetious asides that you couldn't help but laugh at.
"This is a song about a friend of mine with an unusual name," said Merritt, before Gonson rose from behind her weathered piano bench to sing a golden version of "Reno Dakota," despite the fact that she "ate too much kettle corn" prior to the show. There was a flurry of 69 Love Songs material coming at the start of the set (and throughout the entire show), as fragile but showstopping versions of "Come Back From San Francisco" and "No One Will Ever Love You" quickly followed "Dakota," with guitarist John Woo and cellist Sam Davol adding flourishes which gave the songs depth and clarity.
After a loud, and deserved, ovation after "Love You," Gonson teased, "You thought that was amazing, just you wait." And indeed, the show just kept getting better as the night wore on. After a moody version of the new track, "I've Run Away to Join the Fairies," Gonson and Simms dusted off a plaintive track that they initially wrote together for Lazy Susan, "Plain White Roses," which also ended up on Obscurities, and proved to be one of the surprising highlights of the set, as Gonson, Simms, and Merritt blended their vocals in a lovely three-part harmony.
Photos By Erik Hess
"This is another particularly depressing song," said Merritt, his tongue firmly in his cheek at this point, "I used to write a lot of depressing songs. Now, I just write ALL depressing songs." A gorgeous rendition of Distortion's "Drive On, Driver," followed that doleful intro, and things just kept getting more lighthearted when Merritt mentioned "This is a song about John Wayne Gacy" before a touching version of "Time Enough For Rocking When We're Old." The darkness and light dichotomy is at the very heart of the Magnetic Fields, and this live show only clarified how much you need the brightness so that the gloom doesn't overwhelm. If they were miserable up on stage while delivering these morose numbers, the effect wouldn't be nearly as profound.
The comical new song, "The Horrible Party" rang true to everyone who has ever found themselves trapped in a roomful of fools, with Stephin causing Gonson to laugh as he played a kazoo that sounded just like a duck-call. Musette came out to join the band on "Smoke And Mirrors," providing a Belle and Sebastian-like spoken word bit at the end of the number, before Merritt once again provided another humorous introduction. "I wrote this next song in a drunken stupor, because I don't remember writing it. It's not true. A lot of people ask me if this is true, and it's not." And with that came "Andrew In Drag," which drew the biggest applause of the night due to its local radio play. Stephin was having plenty of fun with the short number, though, playfully half-assing it during the witty chorus.
A stunning trio from 69 Love Songs highlighted the back end of the main set, as a glorious version of "Busby Berkeley Dreams," the quick-hitting "Boa Constrictor," and a heart-stopping rendition of "The Book of Love" truly floored the house, as everyone stood in stunned silence as the divine songs swept us all away. As the crowd gave the band a well-earned ovation, Gonson joked, "After the John Wayne Gacy portion of our set, we've now shifted into the Marriage Proposal part of the show. If you missed your chance during that song, you will have two more opportunities during the rest of the show."
Photo By Erik Hess
A splendid version of "Fear of Trains" from The Charm of the Highway Strip kept the emotional level of the show high, before the band once again returned to 69 Love Songs for a stirring rendition of "Grand Canyon," which was prefaced by Merritt and Gonson discussing how the song was inspired by Stephin wanting to throw his mother's boyfriend into the Grand Canyon when he was young. "It wasn't my mother's boyfriend," corrected Merritt humorously, "It was her 'friend' Jeff." Either way, the song was stunning.
Merritt mentioned how he went to London when he was 15 or so, and "Unbeknownst to me, I could get into the clubs, but I just couldn't drink. It was the summer of New Romantics, with people in pirate outfits and clownish costumes, and if your hair was its natural color you had no sense of fashion." But he missed out on all of the fun, sadly, because he didn't know he could get into the clubs. "This song is about another great time to have been in London, 1963." And a bouncy version of "Swinging London" gave the end of the set an energetic spark.
Merritt mischievously introduced a showstopping version of "It's Only Time" by saying, "It's an advertisement for Angostura Bitters. It's only time...for Angostura Bitters." Gonson chimed in, "It's the second song in our Marriage Proposal trilogy" as Merritt concluded, "So get down on your knees, baby." First Avenue has never been as quiet as it was for that song, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who got choked up during that absolutely gorgeous number. The set ended with a quick, touching cover of the Gothic Archies "Smile! No One Cares How You Feel," as Merritt gave a brief wave and was off.
Photo By Erik Hess
After a short break, the band returned, and Gonson took a moment to thank the appreciative and respectful crowd, "Thanks to you Minnesotans. And here we go." And with that, the band eased into a marvelous version of "All My Little Words" led by Davol's elegiac cello, with Stephin's voice breaking as if on cue, perfectly matching the "Not if I could write for you/The sweetest song you ever heard" lyrics.
Merritt then announced "This is our post-penultimate number," before Gonson let it be known that, "This is our final song in our Marriage Proposal trilogy," as the set ended with a graceful version of "Forever and a Day." After a four year absence from the Twin Cities that indeed felt like forever and a day, the Magnetic Fields charmed everyone at First Avenue with songs that are packed with emotion and a live show that perfectly balances comedy and tragedy, leaving all of us rightly moved.
Personal Bias: I just wrote over 1300 words about a 95-minute performance. I'm obviously a massive fan of the Magnetic Fields.
The Crowd: Not a full house, by any means, but the quietest, most respectful First Avenue audience I have ever encountered. That really helped make the show even more special.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Play a really, really good song" at the start of the encore, to which Merritt replied, "And now for the worst song in the Magnetic Fields catalog."
Random Notebook Dump: The main floor was intentionally darkened, and the side bars were shut down, giving the club a shadowy appearance that only heightened the mood of the music.
A Chicken With It's 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
Plain White Roses
Drive On, Driver
My Husband's Pied-A-Terre
Time Enough For Rocking When We're Old
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)
All My Little Words (Encore)
Forever And A Day (Encore)
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.