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The Magnetic Fields at First Avenue, 11/13/12

Categories: Last Night
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Photo By Erik Hess

The Magnetic Fields
With Gal Musette
First Avenue, Minneapolis
November 13, 2012

Anyone who goes to a performance by the Magnetic Fields should be prepared to have their heart broken a time or two during the set. God knows that the band sure has experienced it over their distinguished 20-plus years in the music industry. Stephin Merritt and company's songs may be rather acerbic and doleful, but at least they can laugh about the painful experiences that inspired them, and those moments of engaging levity on stage provided a nice balance to the anguished material the quintet drew from during their stirring 95-minute, 27-song set at a stone-silent First Avenue on Tuesday night.

See Also:
The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt on songwriting, the Spice Girls, and hating John Lennon's "Imagine"
Gal Musette on the Magnetic Fields, writing 70 songs, and having a thick skin

The band, who were playing the first night of their brief six-show fall tour, put everyone at ease the moment they took to the stage, as pianist/vocalist Claudia Gonson admitted, "We learned earlier that it's an urban myth that Prince owns this club." While Merritt joked as he settled in behind his suped-up harmonium, "Please, as a good Magnetic Fields audience, remain motionless during the performance, otherwise we'll just leave."

The band took a moment to praise their 14-year-old opener, Gal Musette, causing Merritt to chime in that he, too, was writing songs when he was 14. Gonson challenged him, saying she'd love to hear a song he wrote from that time, and Merritt asked Shirley Simms, "Do you know the three chords?" They then launched into a sportive rendition of a short song called "Beach-a-Boop-Boop," from Merritt's Obscurities record that he and Simms wrote 30 years ago. It seemed that the band, and the crowd, were clearly settled in (and laughing) by this point.

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Photo By Erik Hess

Gonson then brought a semblance of order to the proceedings, asking everyone to "fast forward a few years" as the band eased into a tender version of "I Die," which got the set off to a poignant start. But rather than dwell on the raw sentiment expressed by that number, Merritt playfully introduced a bouncy rendition of 69 Love Songs' "A Chicken With its Head Cut Off," by saying, "This is a song about an unfortunate barnyard animal. The first of many." The lighthearted intros would continue throughout the set, frequently offsetting the weighty subject matter of the songs themselves with facetious asides that you couldn't help but laugh at.

"This is a song about a friend of mine with an unusual name," said Merritt, before Gonson rose from behind her weathered piano bench to sing a golden version of "Reno Dakota," despite the fact that she "ate too much kettle corn" prior to the show. There was a flurry of 69 Love Songs material coming at the start of the set (and throughout the entire show), as fragile but showstopping versions of "Come Back From San Francisco" and "No One Will Ever Love You" quickly followed "Dakota," with guitarist John Woo and cellist Sam Davol adding flourishes which gave the songs depth and clarity.

After a loud, and deserved, ovation after "Love You," Gonson teased, "You thought that was amazing, just you wait." And indeed, the show just kept getting better as the night wore on. After a moody version of the new track, "I've Run Away to Join the Fairies," Gonson and Simms dusted off a plaintive track that they initially wrote together for Lazy Susan, "Plain White Roses," which also ended up on Obscurities, and proved to be one of the surprising highlights of the set, as Gonson, Simms, and Merritt blended their vocals in a lovely three-part harmony.

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Photos By Erik Hess

"This is another particularly depressing song," said Merritt, his tongue firmly in his cheek at this point, "I used to write a lot of depressing songs. Now, I just write ALL depressing songs." A gorgeous rendition of Distortion's "Drive On, Driver," followed that doleful intro, and things just kept getting more lighthearted when Merritt mentioned "This is a song about John Wayne Gacy" before a touching version of "Time Enough For Rocking When We're Old." The darkness and light dichotomy is at the very heart of the Magnetic Fields, and this live show only clarified how much you need the brightness so that the gloom doesn't overwhelm. If they were miserable up on stage while delivering these morose numbers, the effect wouldn't be nearly as profound.

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