The Magnetic Fields | Gal Musette Sheldon Concert Hall, 11/14/12
Since the Magnetic Fields last played St. Louis, it has completed its synth-free trilogy (2010's Realism was the last puzzle piece), left Nonesuch Records, and returned to Merge Records, the indie label that released its prime 1990s work. With this year's Love at the Bottom of the Sea, Magnetic Fields auteur Stephin Merritt has begun re-introducing the electronics and experimentation into his sound. He remains the master of the witty, cruel lyric ("Your Girlfriend's Face," "My Husband's Pied-a-Terre") and irresistible melody lines. Despite a few mixed reviews, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a worthy continuation of a catalog now two decades and hundreds of songs deep. Currently on a brief Midwest tour, the Magnetic Fields' performance at Sheldon Concert Hall showcased Merritt and band at its best. The Sheldon provided the perfect size and mood; you could have heard a pin drop between songs.
See also: -Stephin Merritt would rather be shopping for books -The Hive Dwellers at Luminary Art Center, 3/27/12: Review, Photos and Setlist -Amanda Palmer, Stephin Merritt, Moby and Neil Gaiman do Rocky Horror
"Today's seminar will be..." pianist/manager Claudia Gonson announced as the band entered the stage. "We heard that Albert Einstein spoke here once. That's daunting," she added.
"Now, uh, play?" Merritt implored, every bit the impatient bandleader he's always been.
In an interview with the RFT's Michael Dauphin earlier this week, Merritt professed to hate touring. And indeed, it's not easy for a man with hyperacusis to deal with the rigors of playing night after night. For instance, when the Magnetic Fields played the Pageant in 2010, he appeared to be in serious pain in between every song, holding his ears and wincing at the applause. Tonight, however, he appeared to be in better spirits. He stood on one side of the stage behind a harmonium and melodica. He still held his left ear after each song, but generally seemed much more at ease.
Among other things, this meant that we got more banter between Merritt and Gonson. They've known each other since high school, and have always been yin and yang onstage. While Gonson discusses whatever's on her mind -- for instance, a hotel shower that she thought left her hair "looking like Maria Muldaur" -- Merritt would throw a disdainful expression or sarcastic rejoinder her way. When they're in good moods (or very bad ones), their give-and-take becomes a central, often hilarious portion of the performance. Tonight they were clearly enjoying themselves.
The 25-song set spanned the entire Magnetic Fields catalog. "Plant White Roses" first appeared on the original Distant Plastic Trees CD in 1991; tonight they gave it a less gothic, more twangy feel, with guitarist/vocalist/ukulele player Shirley Simms harmonizing sweetly with Merritt and Gonson. "Swinging London" and "Fear of Trains" date back to the mid-1990s Holiday and The Charm of the Highway Strip CDs, respectively. 69 Love Songs and the synth-free trilogy were all well represented, as well as the best of Love at the Bottom of the Sea. Even the Gothic Archies, one of Merritt's numerous side projects, was covered with set-closer "Smile! No One Cares How You Feel."