Click here for a slideshow. Photo by Marcella D. Volpintesta. More to come!!!

My relationship with the Magnetic Fields is probably like a lot of


Last Night: Magnetic Fields At Town Hall


Click here for a slideshow. Photo by Marcella D. Volpintesta. More to come!!!

My relationship with the Magnetic Fields is probably like a lot of people’s: I shift from awe to indifference from one song to the next.

Last night’s Town Hall performance, however, was an excellent atmosphere for absorbing a Magnetic Fields’ song for all its worth . Following an intriguing opening set by Interstellar Radio Company—who could be classified as an indie rock Orson Wells radio drama (you’d have to see it to understand)—the Fields took their positions in a very linear fashion at the front of the stage. As was pointed out by pianist Claudia Gonson, those who were seated at extreme stage right and stage left were at a disadvantage: one half wouldn’t be able to see vocalist Shirley Sims, the other half wouldn’t be able to see Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt.

Ditching the waves of feedback that wash over their new album, Distortion, the band played it intimate, acoustic, and spare. Because it was Town Hall, every note was like glass; sharp, fragile, and clear. As Shirley Sims wound down the ending of opening song “I Hate California Girls”, each repetition of the chorus eventually halting to a whisper, the song became more commanding. No doubt her whisper would have been trampled in a lesser venue, but in this setting she tugged on every ear in the house.

Having never seen Magnetic Fields live before (a crime, I know), I paid particular attention to Merritt’s vocal tone. The man has one of the most bone-dry voices in music, not dissimilar from comedian Steven Wright: deep, sonorous, and droll. When he speaks, he sounds like a caricature of a bored psychiatrist, and when he sings he sounds no more excited than a bored psychiatrist getting loose with a game of Scrabble on a Saturday night. Of course, this is all part of the charm, and it’s one of the main reasons why he can deliver lines like “I don’t wanna get over you” and have it sound both ironic and sincere. On “I Don’t Believe You”, I noted a complexity in his voice I've never caught on record. There were deep cracks, autumn hues, strange notes reached as he let certain words leave his mouth and decay in thin air. These were all complimented by the sensual caress of cellist Sam Doval—when you have a frontman as dry and sexless as Merritt, it helps to prop him up alongside an instrument of such robust and curvaceous nature.

Aside from “I’m Sorry I Love You”, I’ve never been a huge fan of vocalist Shirley Sims’ contributions to the band. I acquaint her style to that of eavesdropping on a McSweeney’s staff meeting, and thus found myself zoning out during most of her numbers. Claudia Gonson, however, is a real charmer, and her no-bullshit stage presence is the Magnetic Fields’ biggest ray of sunlight. Coupled with Merritt, the two were heavy on the witty between-song banter, which is a nice break from the indie rockers feigning shyness and hiding behind their locks while tuning guitars.

For example: early in the night, Merritt offered up his story of seeing the Jefferson Airplane live as a kid, Grace Slick screaming from the stage: “They’re killing children over there!” He was terrified, he said, because “I thought she meant stage right.” Only later did he realize she meant “Vietnam.”

Like the best Magnetic Fields songs, it straddles the line between irony and earnestness. And when he pulls that off is when I am in awe of him.

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