Monday, March 19
Much ink has been spilled about Stephin Merritt's moody ways, particularly in concert, which is>"/>
Monday, March 19 The Neptune
The Magnetic Fields
Monday, March 19
Much ink has been spilled about Stephin Merritt's moody ways, particularly in concert, which is part of the fun of seeing The Magnetic Fields live. But unlike fellow curmudgeon Ryan Adams, whose fits of crankiness when performing are well documented, Merritt plays on his reputation while Adams reinforces it. And while it'd be inaccurate to say Merritt appeared to be in good spirits exactly during the first night of the band's two-night stand at the Neptune on Monday, he was certainly charming and disarmingly cranky during their 90-minute set, delivering his deadpan humor between songs without so much as cracking a smile.
Looking like a college philosophy professor with full beard, jacket, scarf and tie, Merritt is a reluctant leader, less a front man than a socially awkward songwriter who hates performing. He seems to want to hide on stage, positioning himself at one end of it behind a mountain of microphones, sheet music and instruments. His band mates counted off each song, most often pianist Claudia Gonson, who also sang a healthy portion of the band's set, and who kept things lively by introducing songs and joking with the audience. Merritt came most alive when singing lead, his deep baritone voice adding weight to his witty treatises on love, death and insanity mostly.
With twenty years of records to pull from, the band's 26-song set (they left out "Boa Constrictor" because of "missing top notes") included selections from across their long career, leaning most heavily on their latest LP, Love at the Bottom of Sea, including "Andrew in Drag," "My Husband's Pied-A-Terre" and "I've Run Away to Join the Fairies," which Merritt introduced as being "more brutally honest than the last song." Though Sea is a return to the synth-heavy sound of records past, the songs took on new dimensions arranged for the five-piece acoustic touring lineup, which also includes Sam Davol on cello, John Woo on guitar and Shirley Simms on ukulele, who also sang lead vocals on several tracks.
Despite his shortcomings as a performer, Merritt gets by on the strength of his beautiful pop songs, which have earned him a devoted following and even placed him at the center of a 2010 documentary film, Strange Powers. He may come off as bristly, but the truth is right there in his songs. Beneath that veneer, Merritt is a softie, a big, fat, easy heart with love songs pulsing through his veins. The Magnetic Fields play the Neptune again tonight.
A Big League arm: "No more photography," Merritt announced after the band's third song. But when a photographer snapped another picture after the warning, he balled up an earplug and winged it at her mid-song, connecting.
Overheard at the show: "You've got to watch Treme, man. Steve Earle is in it."