Last Night: The Magnetic Fields At The Majestic Theatre

Magnetic Fields Majestic Theatre October 13, 2008

Better Than: Pretty much anything else I’ve ever seen at the Majestic.

Just as Magnetic Fields front man Stephin Merritt told the Observer last week, his band does indeed put on a quiet show, and in the right atmosphere that is certainly not a bad thing.

Last night’s show proved that when excess noise is removed, Merritt’s songwriting and his bandmates' musicianship take center stage.

There was nothing exceptionally grand about the band's entrance: With no introduction and little time to build anticipation, the band members took their seats behind a modest setup at what felt like the very back of the stage. Then, suddenly, under the Majestic Theatre’s proscenium arch, soft lighting haloed each of the five musicians' heads as they began to tune their instruments.

A reverence fell over the crowd.

“You are small, but you are mighty,” Claudia Gonson mused from behind her piano. The sentiment seemed to unite band and listener, preparing us for a night that bounced effortlessly from transcendent musical experience to deadpan humor show and back.

Things moved slowly, allowing time for careful tuning between songs and the steady pacing of Merritt’s deep voice throughout.

The result: Controlled—never rushed—vocals and intricate melodies shared between John Woo’s guitar and Merritt’s instrument of choice, the bouzouki. This also gave the crowd a chance to sit back and relax, letting the music happen rather than egging it along.

Gonson and guest vocalist Shirley Simms leant harmony and humor to “California Girls,” while Sam Davol’s magical cello provided, at times, a lively bass line (as in Distortion's “Too Drunk To Dream”) and, at others, a sweeping vibrato (on Distortion's “I’ll Dream Alone”). Woo used actual distortion on tracks like 69 Love Songs’ “The Book of Love,” creating exotic riffs to underline Merritt’s sleepy, enchanting vocals.

An unquestionable highlight of the night came during the performance of “Papa Was a Rodeo”, with Simms supporting Merritt’s lead vocals. The recorded version tells a story with Johnny Cash-like simplicity but, live, it's transformed into a haunting masterpiece that left me (and, if the collective hush followed by cheers and whistles is any indication, everyone else) with chills.

It seems a Magnetic Fields show is not like a Magnetic Fields album. It is stripped down, all excess noise removed. It requires patience and the ability to sit down, relax and listen. And, when it happens, at a venue like the Majestic with a quiet, intelligent crowd like last night’s, it is pure magic.

Critic’s Notebook Personal Bias: Opening act Michael Hearst’s “Songs for Newsworthy News” bit, which included “Does John Edwards Have A Love Child?” and the boo-slash-hiss-inciting “Sarah Palin Being Picked As Running Mate,” had everyone chuckling. But I particularly love that he thanked the Magnetic Fields for closing for him.

Random Note: Cellist Sam Davol was completely immersed in his music until the encore, when the band played “Three-Way.” At that point, he became downright giddy. It just goes to show: Even the most serious musician can’t resist an opportunity to shout “Three-Way!” at the top of his lungs.

By The Way: If you’re wondering why there’s no picture from the show, it’s because my camera caught the watchful eye of a vigilant usher who quickly snatched it up until the end. Sorry. --Brittan Dunham

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