What a great show this was. It was like a chance to sit in on a practice session, to hear the songs I love so much in a different light. This was especially true of material from their new album, which was missing all of the titular Distortion. As much as I like the album, hearing these songs pared down and clarified makes it even clearer how great a writer Stephin Merritt is.
This being my first chance to see them live, it was good to see that the Magnetic Fields isn't just Stephin and the Merritts. They are a great ensemble, working together to bring their arrangements to life. If anything, Claudia Gonson was more the bandleader than anyone. Her wry banter was a nice counterbalance to the music, as were Stephin's admonitions to ignore the audience, as doing otherwise might just encourage us. What a grump!
Shirley Simms' voice has the perfect crisp drawl needed to convey the pathos and true-to-life humor of the lyrics. John Woo is clearly a great guitarist, playing his seemingly simple parts with such subtlety, precision and control. I also really loved the way Sam Davol used his cello as a nearly percussive instrument at times, and at others as an ambient element in the arrangements. Daniel Handler provided occasional accordion fortification and light comic relief.
The highlight of the show for me was this night's rendition of "Papa Was A Rodeo". One of my all time favorite songs, hearing this spare nearly haunting version brought me to the edge of tears. Stephin Merritt's voice is such a funny instrument. It is not a classically beautiful thing, all full of rasp and lemon notes, but he is such a master of its use, letting the thin spots hit at just the right moment and propping it right back up with his basso rumble. Shivers.
posted Mar 17, 2008