Thursday, February 4, 2010

You Didn't Miss Out: Magnetic Fields

Here was the best thing about tonight's Magnetic Fields show at Lisner Auditorium: what the band looked like. A Google image search won't tell you that Stephin Merritt has an endearingly dumpy quality in person, like Chris Ware or a deflated Charlie Brown. He speaks with the same Sonorous Eeyore voice that he uses to sing, and although he looks as though he could wilt out of his chair at any moment, he plays the ukelele beautifully.

But beautiful ukelele playing doth not an audience electrify. That was the most soporific, anemic show I've ever sat through.

I understood what I was getting into. MF is a mostly down-tempo, twee band; they were playing in a concert hall, not a club; they were on acoustic instruments, so the fast stuff like "Long-Forgotten Fairytale" was out of the question. I expected the awkward intermission, lack of alcohol, and polite applause after every number.

But I still had high hopes. As I went in, I asked concert buddies Diogo and Neil whether they thought "Washington, D.C." was going to come at the beginning or the very end. They bet encore. I bet beginning. Why waste such a great opportunity to get the crowd going with the hipster DC anthem, the song that probably convinced half of us to move to, or stay in, this city when there are so many other exciting places out there? Yay, it was going to come first, I knew it!

...We were both wrong. THEY DIDN'T PLAY IT AT ALL. Nor did they play about 64 of their 69 Love Songs, their most famous album. Between playing mostly watered down, tired versions of the few hits they did cover--"I'm Sorry I Love You," "Summer Lies," and "100,000 Fireflies," with Merritt singing the last himself, molto ritardando--they openly mocked audience members who had come to hear more of their favorites. Their rousing encore? "I'm Tongue Tied," which, if you know this band well, would be a song you put on to nap if it weren't so self-indulgently whiny.

If I sound more enraged than mildly irritated, sorry. It's nearly 1 a.m., and what I really feel is the latter. I go to gigs to hear new and obscure material as well as hits. I love the feeling of discovering a song live, then going home and buying the mp3 and feeling it shot through with that live energy, even if it's studio. I like a lot of what the Magnetic Fields have done, before and after The Wayward Bus and 69 Love Songs, and got to know and like a few of their new songs tonight ("The Doll's Tea Party," "We Are Having a Hootenanny").

But the energy in Lisner was just bad, from the awkward, unadvertised opening act (a mousy woman who played the thumb piano and a guy on a glockenspiel) to the final barb from Claudia Gonson, who announced they were finishing with "their only genuine radio hit" but (she said with a big eye-roll) it was not going to be "The Book of Love," their actual most famous hit. Several members of the audience reacted with dismay, and on the way out, at least one guy started singing "Washington, D.C." very loudly, as if trying to prove a point. It was clear that the audience wanted something from the band, and the band had decided to prove an artistic point by not giving it to them. That's OK to do with albums, but please, not shows.


  1. that bad eh? Here's something to cheer you up -

  2. I loved hearing Claudia make excuses about not knowing Washington, D.C. It's not like they haven't known for months they were coming!

    Still, hearing Movies in My Head did a lot for me.