Two years ago, New England musical mastermind Stephin Merritt graced us with two Magnetic Fields shows during the Bay Area’s 18th annual Noise Pop Festival. Spinning Platters was on hand for both performances, and two years later, Merritt and his quintet have returned, with a new opus in tow, to the Fox Theater in Oakland for a new round of orchestral whimsy and symphonic folk-pop playfulness. As the musical tide has turned for the mood and feel of the band’s newest release, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea, so too, apparently, has their attitude to live performances. Rather than occupy the resonant wooden floors and still-somewhat-fresh carpet of the theater with chairs for a quiet, introspective performance, the audience was given free reign in a regular general-admission get-as-close-as-you-like setting. There was a loud and upbeat performer opening the show. The band even responded to whoops, cheers, and catcalls. What a change is here! For even the most stoic Magnetic Fields fan, however, the change of mood was a rather uplifting one, and a general camaraderie was established between both the boisterous and the simply bemused for this acoustic exploration of the band’s charming new work.
In keeping with a spirit of higher energy and an atmosphere more reminiscent of a grand, ostentatious show, opener Bachelorette delivered in the form of a dreamy mix of analogue synths, gossamer vocals draped over shimmering pulses, and a solid backbeat that got even the most navel-gazing of the attendees to shuffle their feet — perhaps even attempting some busier moves through the 40 minutes that she was onstage. Otherwise known as Annabel Alpers, the New Zealand songwriter blended the newer, fresher sounds of today’s electronic indie masters with warm tones and delicate bass, even with occasional handclaps and tambourine attacks. One could hear a pairing of Jean-Michel Jarre, or even Kraftwerk, with modern (albeit vintage styled) nods to M83, The Naked and Famous, and even Hot Chip, with a breathy, warm alto voice that spoke of Fiona Apple or PJ Harvey. Accompanying Bachelorette’s oft-enveloping wave of electronica was a massive screen that pulsed, quivered and shook in time with both the music and the audience’s cheers after each song. She responded in turn with a brittle but courteously happy voice that thanked the crowd jubilantly after each burst of applause, and was a gracefully energetic opening to the show.
Rather than respond to the wildly ecstatic cheers, catcalls and thunderous applause that greeted them at the moment they arrive onstage, the Magnetic Fields seemed to be overjoyed to be back onstage at the Fox Theater. Even frontman Stephin Merritt, well known for his delicate-but-powerful sense of sound and hearing, gave a few nods and waves before kicking off the set with “I Die”, from the band’s seventh record, i. As with before, the trio of vocalists — Merritt on a variety of instruments, Claudia Gonson on piano, and Shirley Simms on ukulele — bantered back and forth, and took turns introducing each number of the set. Many of the songs from Love At The Bottom Of The Sea were introduced with their subject manner, and with many of them being songs about strangeness, revenge, or even crossdressing (“Andrew In Drag”), they drew regular peals of laughter from the audience — both in the introduction and as the lyrics were sung aloud.
The playfulness of the band was taken up a few extra notches with the arrival of accordionist Daniel Handler, better known under his penname Lemony Snicket, who provided accompaniment on a number of songs, as well as some rather wild stage antics.Gallantly imbibing a clear liquid from a translucent flask he hastily stowed in his pocket after each swig, he took a few turns dancing about the stage, even near-accosting guitarist John Woo on a few more riotous occasions. The cantankerousness of Handler’s antics prompted a rowdier response from the crowd, and as if prepared for this, Merritt had his own set of zingers ready for the more obstinate hecklers that hooted and howled in quieter moments. Once the crowd WAS able to get further under control, however, Merritt acknowledged them and indulged them in a collection of songs that spanned their entire career, with at least one song played from each of their albums (all but their sophomore release The Wayward Bus). The sextet — Merritt, Handler, Gonson, Simms, Woo, and cellist Sam Davol — also surprised their fans with a two-song encore, which was a wide berth in and of itself: “Tar-Heel Boy”, from the band’s debut Distant Plastic Trees, and “Forever And A Day”, a solo creation by Merritt himself.
I was unprepared for the openness and borderline pranksterism that the Magnetic Fields decided to bring with them on this tour, but it is no doubt owing to the themes and words that their new album is possessed of in spades, and it was a welcome change to the somber seriousness that their previous appearance sometimes descended into. It was also quite delightful to see the new songs performed in a stripped-down, acoustic manner, which, while largely present in the works of 69 Love Songs, i, Distortion and Realism, are all but absent on their latest release. The words and instrumentation were remarkably clear, and it was a true joy to hear myself laughing at the clever lyrics along with the people around me. It is proof that the Magnetic Fields are still full of surprises, while still able to hold onto their delicate balance of elegant musicianship and soft, calm levels of amplification creeping from the speakers around them. Perhaps the next round of touring from the band will not only feature more clapping and cheering, but maybe even Stephin Merritt’s own set of improvised dance moves? Well, one can dare to dream, I suppose.
- I Die
- A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
- Your Girlfriend’s Face
- Reno Dakota
- Come Back From San Francisco
- No One Will Ever Love You
- I’ve Run Away To Join The Fairies
- Plant White Roses
- Drive On, Driver
- My Husband’s Pied-à-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
- Boa Constrictor
- The Book Of Love
- Fear Of Trains
- You Must Be Out Of Your Mind
- The Grand Canyon
- Swinging London
- It’s Only Time
- Tar-Heel Boy
- Forever And A Day
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