Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Magnetic Fields Underplugged

Ben and I saw The Magnetic Fields at Town Hall last night. For Ben, this involved a six-hour, rather annoying train ride from W-A-S-H-I-N-G-T-O-N, baby, D.C. But he arrived a few minutes into the opening act. For me, it involved scarfing down a pulled pork sandwich and some collard greens from Spanky's BBQ before the show. Mmm-mmm!

In the case of the first artists of the evening, "act" is definitely the right word, as opposed to "set," for instance, because the opening act was the Interstellar Radio Company, a four person theatre company that performs sound plays and adopts science fiction stories to be presented as three-person sound plays on stage. They describe themselves on their web site as "New York–based producers of experiments in narrative sound." Not your usual opening act. Last night, they gave us a science fiction story about confronting realized versions of imaginary monsters that you the characters had created as children. Actor Adam Green read all of the parts, using an effects pedal and more analog shifts in intonation to provide different voices. (He is not Adam Green formerly of the Moldy Peaches.) Matthew Beals provided the sound effects, which were neat but not yet at the level of the amazing Fred Newman from A Prairie Home Companion. There was an accordianist, who may or may not have been Rob Amesbury. And the show was directed by Jeremy McCarter, who apparently is the theatre reviewer for New York Magazine.

The story was kind of neat, and the amount of dialog that Adam Green had memorized was pretty amazing. But--as would be the problem after The Magnetic Fields took the stage--the performance was almost inaudible from where we were sitting (row J in the house left section -- up close but off to the side). I've experienced some bad sound at Town Hall before--a Peter Rowan performance from 1999 stands out (unfortunately) in that regard--but I expected more of a rock sound for last night's show. That was not to be the case, which, in some ways was OK but also was a definite downer.

After a short break, The Magentic Fields took the stage: Stephin Merritt on pineapple ukelele (which looks a bit like an oud), Claudia Gonson on piano, Sam Davol on cello, John Woo on guitar (sadly not on banjo last night -- the photo to the right is from a show in Atlanta in 2004) and Shirley Simms sitting in as a third vocalist (Claudia and Stephin being the first two). Everything was acoustic, which is a far cry from the latest CD, Distortion, which in many ways lives up to its name. It was also somewhat at odds with the huge speaker stacks adorning both sides of the stage. So, as I noted above, everything was quite quiet. The banter, in particular, was inaudible, given Stephin Merritt's penchant for mumbling in addition to the lack of volume in the house. So for the entire first set, I was straining my ears to hear the lyrics. During the second set, they brought up the volume just a tiny touch (and we also filled in a few empty seats in our row, bringing us a little closer to the center).

Part of this is about expectations. I had been listening to Distortion during the day, so I expected maybe a little more rock to occur. And part of it is about the house mains not being turned up enough. But here is what the quietness accomplished: it kept the audience extremely quiet--no chatter, no requests, just polite applause (with a few bursts of really enthusiastic applause). And, perhaps much more to the point as far as the band is concerned, the quietness forced one to really listen to the music intently. And in a way, this is much more classical chamber music than it is rock and roll. The pieces are like Weberian miniatures: everything is in its place or else out of place. So it is not about flashy guitar solos (although Ben was really aching for John Woo to be set loose) or about improvisation at all; it is about taking a composed piece and playing it precisely. So rather than furious movement up and down the neck of the guitar, we had precise picking patterns on guitar, playful pizzicato bass runs and long drone notes on the cello and tinkling accents on the piano. That is not to say that everyone played perfectly--I think that everybody hit a wrong note here or there--but you knew when they hit a wrong note because you were listening closely and because it was so obvious.

The set list looked something like this--not being a true Magnetic Fields afficianado, I'm not sure that I have these all right, but I suspect that it's pretty close:

"California Girls"

"I Don't Believe You"

"All My Little Words"

"Come Back from San Francisco"

"Old Fools"

"Xavier Says"

"Walking My Gargoyle"

"Too Drunk to Dream"

"Till the Bitter End"

"The Night You Can't Remember"

"I Thought You Were My Boyfriend"

---Set Break---

"Lovers from the Moon"

"I Wish I Had an Evil Twin"

"Give Me Back My Dreams" - from one of Stephin Merritt's other bands, The 6ths

"Grand Canyon"

"Papa Was a Rodeo" - Shirley Simms came in perfectly for the final go-round of the chorus (with its narrative reversing properties), and the crowd went (relatively) wild over it

"Drive on, Driver"

Claudia--who, in general, acts as the emcee and snaps out the tempo for each song--paused at this point to describe Magnetic Fields' rehearsals and how they compile three-ring binders full of songs (which they were all using on stage) by passing around the three-hold punch and sometimes someone gets sent out to buy reinforcements if the integrity of a sufficient number of holes has been compromised. Stephin responds from the other end of the stage, "You know, you tell all of these anecdotes. And they're all like half-made-up."

"The Nun's Litany"

"The Tiny Goat" - Claudia sings this winning sad song about a tiny goat who throws a party to which no one comes

"Smoke and Mirrors"

"Zombie Boy"

ENCORE: "Threeway!" - a rocker on the CD, the acoustic version sounds like something that the Kronos Quartet would do

People break the norm and start yelling out requests. Claudia nips it in the bud: "So many wonderful songs... All those wonderful songs... Here is a different wonderful song..."

"Take Ecstasy with Me"

"The Book of Love" - a perfect ending to the concert without a doubt; some friends recently used this as the recessional at their wedding (performance by Matt Schickele)

So Ben and I left with a definite good taste in our mouths despite the low volume levels. We washed down the concert with a couple of beers at the Heartland Brewery, and Ben caught a 12:40 a.m. train for Princeton to rendezvous with his girlfriend.

1 comment:

Shira B. said...

Don't forget Tom Keith! He is the other Prairie Home Companion sound guy extraordinaire, and he also co-hosts one of the MPR morning shows. I have very strong memories of that... ah, home...

Also! Just want to throw this out there--do you think the volume level had anything to do with Stephin Merritt's hearing condition? I think I've read that he doesn't perform much because loud noises are really painful for him to listen to. Good write-up, though! I am so jealous!