The Magnetic Fields | Gal Musette Sheldon Concert Hall, 11/14/12
Since the Magnetic Fields last played St. Louis, it has completed its synth-free trilogy (2010's Realism was the last puzzle piece), left Nonesuch Records, and returned to Merge Records, the indie label that released its prime 1990s work. With this year's Love at the Bottom of the Sea, Magnetic Fields auteur Stephin Merritt has begun re-introducing the electronics and experimentation into his sound. He remains the master of the witty, cruel lyric ("Your Girlfriend's Face," "My Husband's Pied-a-Terre") and irresistible melody lines. Despite a few mixed reviews, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a worthy continuation of a catalog now two decades and hundreds of songs deep. Currently on a brief Midwest tour, the Magnetic Fields' performance at Sheldon Concert Hall showcased Merritt and band at its best. The Sheldon provided the perfect size and mood; you could have heard a pin drop between songs.
See also: -Stephin Merritt would rather be shopping for books -The Hive Dwellers at Luminary Art Center, 3/27/12: Review, Photos and Setlist -Amanda Palmer, Stephin Merritt, Moby and Neil Gaiman do Rocky Horror
"Today's seminar will be..." pianist/manager Claudia Gonson announced as the band entered the stage. "We heard that Albert Einstein spoke here once. That's daunting," she added.
"Now, uh, play?" Merritt implored, every bit the impatient bandleader he's always been.
In an interview with the RFT's Michael Dauphin earlier this week, Merritt professed to hate touring. And indeed, it's not easy for a man with hyperacusis to deal with the rigors of playing night after night. For instance, when the Magnetic Fields played the Pageant in 2010, he appeared to be in serious pain in between every song, holding his ears and wincing at the applause. Tonight, however, he appeared to be in better spirits. He stood on one side of the stage behind a harmonium and melodica. He still held his left ear after each song, but generally seemed much more at ease.
Among other things, this meant that we got more banter between Merritt and Gonson. They've known each other since high school, and have always been yin and yang onstage. While Gonson discusses whatever's on her mind -- for instance, a hotel shower that she thought left her hair "looking like Maria Muldaur" -- Merritt would throw a disdainful expression or sarcastic rejoinder her way. When they're in good moods (or very bad ones), their give-and-take becomes a central, often hilarious portion of the performance. Tonight they were clearly enjoying themselves.
The 25-song set spanned the entire Magnetic Fields catalog. "Plant White Roses" first appeared on the original Distant Plastic Trees CD in 1991; tonight they gave it a less gothic, more twangy feel, with guitarist/vocalist/ukulele player Shirley Simms harmonizing sweetly with Merritt and Gonson. "Swinging London" and "Fear of Trains" date back to the mid-1990s Holiday and The Charm of the Highway Strip CDs, respectively. 69 Love Songs and the synth-free trilogy were all well represented, as well as the best of Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Even the Gothic Archies, one of Merritt's numerous side projects, was covered with set-closer "Smile! No One Cares How You Feel." The set was expertly-paced, allowing all three vocalists to alternate and providing a nice balance between the funny songs and the tearjerkers. Cellist Sam Davol took an experimental direction tonight, providing mock-Mingus accents to "Love Is Like Jazz" and reveling at times in John Cale-like swooping drones, a new direction for him. Woven through the set was the "Marriage Proposal Trilogy," consisting of "The Book of Love," "It's Only Time" and the encore "Forever And A Day." It all added up to the best of the Magnetic Fields' three St. Louis appearances.
Opening act Gal Musette was an unexpected, sweet surprise. Only fourteen years old (meaning she was not yet born when Merritt began writing 69 Love Songs), Musette and cohort Brent Samson played a set of short, guileless songs with a ragtime flair and a certain underlying melancholy. Musette played piano and ukulele and sang in a high, warbly register, while Samson mostly stuck to acoustic guitar and stomped on a box for percussion. The end result resembled Blossom Dearie collaborating with Low or Ida. Samson did not stop smiling throughout the entire set, at one point enthusing about how he nearly quit music before beginning to collaborate with Musette. Between the two of them, their enthusiasm was infectious. Musette returned to the stage during the Magnetic Fields' set to provide background French translation during "Smoke and Mirrors." Should she and Samson return to St. Louis, don't miss them.
Overheard: "I can't believe I'm getting to see the Magnetic Fields. I don't care if they just throw paper airplanes around onstage; I'm just happy to see them."
Personal Bias: I've probably seen the Magnetic Fields more often than any other band. I attended literally dozens of their shows throughout the 1990s, when I lived in and around New York City. I've known Gonson even longer; we bonded over a shared love of British post-punk at a time when this was not as common as it is now.
Setlist: I Die A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off Your Girlfriend's Face Reno Dakota Come Back from San Francisco Love Is Like Jazz 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 The Horrible Party Smoke and Mirrors Goin' Back to The Country Andrew In Drag Quick! Busby Berkeley Dreams Boa Constrictor The Book of Love Fear of Trains You Must Be Out of Your Mind Grand Canyon Swinging London It's Only Time Smile! No One Cares How You Feel (Gothic Archies) Encore: All My Little Words Forever And a Day