Despite last night's dreary weather, The Magnetic Fields exercised their usual level of restraint by not performing "All The Umbrellas In London" nor even "In The City In The Rain". This reserve extended beyond mere meteorological facts, as the band mostly held back the hits for the entirety of both sets at their first of three performances this week in Sloane Square's Cadogan Hall.
The night began with delays and an overcrowded foyer, which in a venue as generally organised as Cadogan Hall, signalled something was amiss. When the band took stage, we found out what that something was. Having performed the night before in Dublin, they spent the morning travelling to London... and the afternoon as well. After an eight-hour travel nightmare which ended with BMI losing all their gear, Stephin Merritt and company didn't have the nicest things to say about the low-cost airlines.
Fortunately they were able to hire most of what they needed, but it meant they would be playing with unfamiliar instruments. While this may work fine for a guitar, we would imagine that it doesn't bode as well for cellos. Despite the setback, singer and pianist Claudia Gonson brightly declared that they welcomed all these new instruments into the family wholeheartedly. Stephin even named the cello, Percival, "for being completely untutored, but so brave that it doesn't matter."
With their latest record, Distortion, having been released earlier this year, naturally much of the focus was on new material. An early highlight of the first set was this album's comical indictment of Los Angeles superficialities, "California Girls". As the name of the release indicates, Distortion employs far more noise than other recent efforts from the group, so hearing these songs acoustically in a venue like Cadogan Hall gave us an entirely fresh perspective on them. Stripped of all production, these songs were forced to stand on the strength of their witty lyrics, lingering melodies and clever structures.
For the most part, stand they did, but for every "California Girls", there were songs like "Old Fools" which fell flat without a complex wall of sound to lift it up. Even with how good it sounds on record, we often find ourselves wanting to skip past it. Performed as minimally as it was last night, we were left admiring our lovely surroundings until, as on the album, we were treated to the brilliant "Xavier Says". Despite these occasional losses in translation, you must admire the courage of artists that record incredibly electric material and go on to perform it live in such a radically different fashion.
Between-song banter was as high as you'd expect at a performance by The Magnetic Fields, with each song lovingly introduced by Claudia and Stephin. For long-time fans such as ourselves, the additional context added whole new dimensions to songs we've listened to hundreds of times, while less ardent newcomers would likely find it hard not to be charmed by their stage presence. Before launching into "Too Drunk To Dream", Stephin croaked, "This is another song about being abandoned." When we chuckled at his despair, he mocked our laughter right back. From anyone else this would seem incredibly mean, but with Stephin Merritt, you expect that and you can't help but laugh even more: he's just so cute when he's angry.
With a discography as extensive as theirs, even two full sets are bound to leave every fan wanting more. In addition to playing several older tunes from their backcatalogue as The Magnetic Fields, we were also given lovely renditions of songs from almost every one of their side projects. Hearing "Walking My Gargoyle" and "Crows" from The Gothic Archies' 2006 release The Tragic Treasury: Songs From A Series Of Unfortunate Events were unexpected pleasures, though we wish they would have done personal favourite "In the Reptile Room", arguably that album's brightest moment.
If we had a chief complaint about the night, it would have been the volume. Not only did the overall mix sound imbalanced and flat, but it was simply too quiet. We're not sure if the reduced decibel levels were engineered on purpose to avoid aggravating Stephin's unfortunate hearing condition, in which case it's completely understandable, but if not, the sound crew should definitely consider turning it up a bit for the final two gigs.
Considering the suboptimal sound, the band were at their best when they played to the strengths of their surroundings. Simple, sparse songs like "Papa Was A Rodeo" and "The Nun's Litany" were clearly the most unforgettable moments of the performance, with the latter being worth the price of admission alone. Had their set focused entirely on songs like these, ones which are easily carried simply through a bit of strumming and Stephin's powerfully deep voice, this may have been one of the best gigs we've seen from them.
Attending a performance by The Magnetic Fields is always an experience to be treasured. Their casual non-rockstar demeanour suits them perfectly and we could easily sit through four or five sets of their wistful, lovelorn pop gems. Regardless of the evening's setbacks, the band's earnest enthusiasm for the material took a terrible day and turned it around. After a good night's sleep, and hopefully the safe return of their instruments, the remaining two dates should see this remarkable five-piece at the top of their game.
The Magnetic Fields play Cadogan Hall again on Thursday 10 July 2008 and Friday 11 July 2008 with support from Darren Hanlon both nights.
Photo by Marcelo Krasilcic courtesy of Nonesuch Records.