The Magnetic Fields make beautiful music live … you had just better not have the audacity to get up and pee. Video by John Moore, The Denver Post
The last two Magnetic Fields shows to take place in Colorado have been on the University of Colorado campus, which turns out to be appropriate. Before Wednesday, I’d never been to a show where I felt the same angst-ridden surprise you get when a pop-quiz is dropped in your lap, in the one class that just can’t seem to maintain your interest. The class where you know the professor has his eye on you as the slacker, and revels in making you sweat. Only this class is in the Boulder Theater, and your professors are Stephin Merritt, Claudia Gonson and the rest of the band.
Thankfully, The Magnetic Fields’ melodic pop brilliance, with Merritt’s scintillating lyricism, nearly dissolved the angst Oct. 15, as they filled the Boulder Theater with their signature lovelorn and sardonic repertoire.
We didn’t get a very long or steady look at The Magnetic Fields before our photograpaher was kicked to the curb. Shooting these guys up-close is enough to make anyone nervous. Truth: The band invoked the fairly standard “three songs only” rule on photogs – then craftily made two of them all-female duets. It was a calculated strategy to minimize access and attention to the caustic recluse, Stephen Merritt.
For more than two hours, the band entertained us with its unique blend of pop music, show tunes, wrywit, and downright (upright? uptight?) intellectualism. Joined on stage by cellist Sam Davol, guitarist John Woo, and vocalist Shirley Simms, Merritt and Gonson led a nearly all-acoustic set of songs from throughout the band’s prolific history, including “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!,” “Papa Was A Rodeo,” and “Come Back From San Fransisco,” among many others.
They also threw in quite a few renditions from their Jesus & Mary Chain-soaked latest record “Distortion.” But without the distortion.
A highlight was a quiet, almost serene version of “California Girls,” sung primarily by Simms. Loud and feedback-infused on the record, this acoustic version almost belied the sardonic contempt for the too-thin, vapid and insolent West-coast creatures prevalent in the song’s lyrics. This version produced more than a few chuckles from the audience.
But an atmosphere of pressure pervaded the concert that continually threatened to ruin the evening. Talk about performance anxiety – with the focus in this case being on the audience. We could feel the pressure to behave from the stage, beneath the constant and dry banter between Merritt and Gonson. The pair continuously and quietly exchanged observations about altitude and the annoying lack of oxygen, discussions about the problems with touring (including the tragedy of Stephin’s loss of the freedom to consult imdb.com at his leisure) and stories about a broken-hearted (and eventually disintegrated) chihuahua.
All of this conversation was delivered in droll, heavy, nonchalant tones, peppered with comments about an annoying audience that had “too many walkers.” Ouch – the perils of pop-stardom, where a group of artists is doomed, from time to time, to have to deal with the inequities of entertaining adoring fans … who occasionally have to pee!
I often felt like we were being treated to an ultra-hip, albeit not quite as endearing, version of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion,” on National Public Radio, rather than a show from one of the indie-pop scene’s most respected, talented and intellectual bands. The big difference was that Merritt lacked the humility that Keillor brings to the radio show, as he mostly came across as jaded, rather than amusing.
“I have never kept a more perfect posture at a show before. That was heavy. Heavy like a lecture from my intimidating professor in my Rhetoric and Public Culture class in college. That dude scared me. . . . I was too scared he’d see me in the crowd and come down off the stage with his voice and that guitar thing of his and get all hyper-literate on me. . . . Glad (relieved) when it was over.”
I’m pretty sure a large part of the audience shared that sense of relief upon exiting the show onto the Pearl Street Mall that night. The feeling could be compared to the abandon of finishing a final exam, and no longer really caring about the grade. I’m not too sure I passed Merritt and Gonson’s pop class, but I don’t care. I’m happy now to keep my focus on their beautiful, hilarious, and complex recorded music, in independent study.
Billy Thieme is a Denver freelance writer and regular Reverb contributor.
To read Denver Post music writer John Wenzel’s Q&A with Stephin Merritt in advance of the show, click here