Show Review: The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir at the Fox Oakland, 4/30-5/1/2017

by Jonathan Pirro on May 5, 2017

Two nights of intimacy and storytelling with the man who plays a hundred instruments

Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields

Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields

The Magnetic Fields are an extremely strange phenomenon: a group that is wildly talented, successful, and fiercely loved by their fans, despite staying relatively far from the radio-friendly limelight. The songwriting of creative leader Stephin Merritt evokes memories of both Sondheim-esque theatrical compositions and shimmering 80s pop ballads; his lyrics range from whimsically poetic to wickedly tongue-in-cheek; and most of their records are complete conceptual pieces, collected in the space of an entire singular work. Despite his dozens of works ranging on anything from 69 songs about love to country-style tunes about the open road, Merritt has seldom penned works that speak specifically about his own life, which is where his new record 50 Song Memoir comes in. Comprised of one song for each of the years in his own life, starting in 1965 and ending in 2015 (when the recording for the album began), the work takes up five discs and two and a half hours of playing time — making it the perfect piece to play across the span of two nights.

The Magnetic Fields

The Magnetic Fields

For each stop on the 50 Song Memoir tour, the Magnetic Fields are performing for two nights, with 25 songs being played at each show, along with a brief intermission halfway through the evening. There’s no opener, no intro piece, no encore — you’re simply welcomed into the menagerie of music that Stephin Merritt and his cohorts have brought along with them, giving life to the massive work that saw Merritt along playing over 100 instruments over the course of the 2.5-hour work. Unlike most Magnetic Fields tours, Merritt takes center stage, surrounded by a collection of intriguing and odd instruments — everything from vintage synthesizers and ukeleles to a percussive Jacob’s Ladder and hand-assembled cymbal rig. Surrounding the gazebo-like structure that encapsulates Merritt is the rest of the band, who trade off on their own instrumental duties from song to song, and gentle lights frame the entire assemblage. With a silent, seated audience, a no-phone-photos-whatsoever policy, and a constant emphasis to keep the volume at a gentle level, it’s a surreal but serene experience — even for the more danceable numbers!

Shirley Simms of The Magnetic Fields

Shirley Simms of The Magnetic Fields

Lest the romanticization of the show fool you, 50 Song Memoir — both as an album and a live experience — is still delightfully possessed of the biting humor that Stephin Merritt is well known for. Stories of his uncomfortableness with looking someone in the eye (“Eye contact / How I hate eye contact! / Having to stare / Exactly, in fact, where?”), to hypocritical faith healers peddling religion at his mother (“Did he cure colds and cancer, and bring back the dead? / Did he refuse donations? / No”), or even failing his Ethics class in college (“I declared morality an offshoot of aesthetics / And got a failing C for my defiance”), filled both evenings, and the numbers were glued together with occasional anecdotes, delivered in the same dryly-amused fashion by Merritt himself. Needless to say, the audience was laughing loudly both during and between songs for most of both nights.

Pinky Weitzman and Sam Davol of The Magnetic Fields

Pinky Weitzman and Sam Davol of The Magnetic Fields

Remarkably, 50 Song Memoir is an excellent experience for both new and old Magnetic Fields fans. The wit and whimsy that Merritt so casually injects into his songwriting is omnipresent throughout the full work; more romantic and somber pieces occupy the majority of the latter half, but there’s still plenty of room for amusement and sarcasm, as well. Folk tunes, synth-filled dance tracks, graceful hymns, rousing sing-alongs, delicate piano ballads, and everything in between — all can be found within either half, and offer an excellent portrayal of the work the group is known for, as well as some new perspectives on songwriting that Merritt has been working on since 2012’s Love At The Bottom Of The Sea. The album is lush, full of elegant production and orchestration; the live show is full and lively, and yet remarkably intimate; experiencing both is the optimal experience, really. (It’s also one of the most open portraits of the rather reclusive Merritt, so it’s a heartwarming experience for his fans to be able to share in this tale of his life.)

Stephin Merritt

Stephin Merritt

Having seen the Magnetic Fields twice before, I had some idea of what to expect, but this was the tour that finally clicked with me. Whether it was the fact that the album looked to explore as many genres as made sense within a single piece of work, or Merritt openly speaking and singing about his life experiences, some element of the adoration about the Magnetic Fields finally made itself prominent in my mind, and I had a magnificent time at both shows. If you’re looking for a fresh, terribly fun, delightfully intimate, and surprisingly moving live experience, look no further than The Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir tour — or wherever they end up next!

 

Additional photos from the shows below. All photos © 2017 Jonathan Pirro.

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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