With all of the bombast and thundering rock acts that have barreled through the Fox Theater over its first year of new business, one would think that the venue is only sticking around for the big, loud shows. Despite having a few concerts last year for softer, calmer acts, such as the folk masters of Bon Iver or the raptly-followed Band Of Horses, the majority of the performances at the Fox have been for big bands that seem to be out to test the limits of the theater’s foundations. Tonight’s show, arguably one of the most anticipated nights of the Noise Pop Festival, was a stark contrast to all previous acts; it was also perhaps the only show in my life that I did not need to wear earplugs for, for any moment of the performances. The Magnetic Fields had returned to the Bay Area, bringing with them their quiet, peaceful brand of beautiful joy and gorgeous melancholy.
After a short performance by opener Mark Eitzel, whose deep voice and soulful tunes helped to set the mood for the evening, Stephin Merritt and the rest of the Fields entered the theater to wild applause. An early rumor that Stephin was wishing for an extremely quiet crowd became obvious within the first notes of their opening number, “Lindy-Lou”; even sitting at the very entrance to the orchestra pit, the sound was distant but enveloping, present and yet far from overwhelming. With each song punctuated by remarks from Claudia Gonson, who was on keyboards this evening, and snarky but hilarious replies from Stephin, the crowd was in a very pleasant mood, even when the band wasn’t playing their much-loved classics.
For tonight’s performances — the band played for two entire sets! — there were 3 additions to the regular quartet of Stephin, Claudia, cellist Sam Davol, and guitarist John Woo. Shirley Simms, who performed vocals for the group’s two latest albums (Distortion and Realism, respectively), was also to be found on the zither tonight; also accompanying for the pre-encore set were Daniel Handler on accordion and Johny Blood on trumpets and tuba. The eclectic mix was just loud enough to immerse the theater in a deep, rich sound colored with all of the different instruments, with no particular performer seeming to take charge over the others (besides the rich, baritone notes of Stephin’s signature voice, of course).
The tone of the evening was also set by a rather sparse stage setup and an almost entirely absent light show. It was really very gorgeous to be able to see AND hear all of the notes being played by each musician, without being distracted by flashing colors or intricate projections. Dark blue, green and purple hues lit the theater as the group played on, each song a real treat to listen to it its beauty and shortness of breadth. (I have always been fascinated by the sheer output quantity of Stephin Merritt; it is really amazing to think of the number of songs he has written that can all grab hold of you and give you just enough of a dance to leave you wanting more over and over again.)
The majority of the set focused on songs from the new album, Realism (although they did throw in the amusing “Nun’s Litany” from the aforementioned recent release, Distortion). The rest spanned nearly every album of the Magnetic Fields’ career, with Claudia and Stephin commenting mostly on older songs and how they were different (slightly or drastically) from tonight’s performance. Some of the biggest cheers came in response to older songs, such as “Falling In Love With The Wolfboy”, “You And Me And The Moon”, and “Fear of Trains”; there seemed to be a large chunk of the crowd, however, that was most responsive to the pieces from their 1999 magnum opus 69 Love Songs. For good measure, the band also performed a few pieces by The 6ths, another musical project of Stephin Merritt.
The mood of peace and calm was present throughout both sets, although punctured by the occasional overenthusiastic concertgoer cheering from up on the balcony. The break between “From A Sinking Boat” (the final song of the set) and “I’m Tongue Tied” (the first piece of the encore) was marked with feverish cheering, stomping feet and tumultuous applause, as if the crowd was determined to yell the quiet back out of the theater. The band brought the night to a close with a performance of “100,000 Fireflies” from the band’s first album, Distant Plastic Trees, then waved enthusiastically and bowed awkwardly to the eager, roaring crowd as they departed from the stage.
This was my first Magnetic Fields concert and my second show in the 2010 Noise Pop Festival, having seen Yoko Ono earlier this week at the Fox Theater. In amidst all the chaos and excitement surrounding the many rock shows I’ve worked recently, it was nice to have a nurturing, gentle evening of beautiful music and marvelous instrumentation, with melodies that I was able to grasp and pull into myself within a moment’s notice. I am only a casual listener of the Magnetic Fields, but the fact that I was able to take so much beauty and wonder from this show is a sign, to me, of their excellence as performers. Despite not being able to attend the band’s performance at the Herbst Theater next week, I look forward to the next time that Stephin Merritt decides to bring his magic back to us here in Oakland.
All photos by Jonathan Pirro.