magnetic fields @ herbst theatre, san francisco (Noise Pop 2008)

Tonight I saw the Magnetic Fields at the Herbst Theatre.

Going into the show I had reasons to want this show to be good and reasons I secretly hoped it would be bad. The Magnetic Fields are one of the bands I’ve liked the longest while still having never seen them. I narrowly missed seeing them (for $8! oh, those were simpler times!) in 1999 and didn’t manage to see any tours after that. Anyway, I wanted to love it because it’d mean that all these years of wait were worth it. I wanted to hate it because, well, then I wouldn’t have to kick myself for all those missed opportunities. In the end, it was somewhere in between.

The Herbst Theatre, if you haven’t been there is a beautiful old venue inside the War Memorial building. It’s a seated venue but that works out just fine for the Magnetic Fields. It’s large but not giant at all. The band was set up on the stage, all seated as well, except for Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) who played accordion and sang on a handful of songs and stood on the far left when he was on stage. From there, left to right, it was Shirley Simms on vocals, Claudia Gonson on piano and vocals (and MCing and personability), John Woo on acoustic guitar, Sam Davol on cello and, of course, Stephin Merritt on bouzouki (bowl-backed rather than Irish).

A bit of a side-track or two and then I’ll get back to the show. There’s been a bit of a break or a transition in the Magnetic Fields music. The older style involved heavily processed instruments and synths where as from 69 Love Songs more real (or unprocessed) instruments were heard. The older style had roots in the very purposeful drive toward using the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt in the music. The idea behind this is basically to alienate or anger your audience to the point where they had to actively listen to you. But, like probably a lot of people, when I first heard Distant Plastic Trees/ The Wayward Bus, I liked the songs but I wanted to hear them with unprocessed instruments. I even remember emailing some friends in 1998 or 1999 asking if any of the side projects or rare recordings had real instruments.

Basically what I’m saying is that in 1998 I desperately wanted to hear tonight’s concert, with not a single synth note or processed drum beat. In the time I grew to accept and then love the production on those early albums and Charm of the Highway Strip and Get Lost still stand as my favorites.

I still appreciated the acoustic instrumentation of tonight’s performance but sometimes it just sounded to cheesy for me. I remember thinking that “Papa was a Rodeo” sounded like something on Adult Contemporary radio. But here’s the thing: it was so off-putting, that I was listening more intently and through that I was effected by the emotional core of the song. It’s almost like Merritt intended this take on the Verfremdungseffekt, one that would take you from a surprise angle. Or maybe he didn’t and I was just assigning value to these things so it’ll make sense in my head.

The set was a mix of songs from across many of the albums. I wish, of course, that there had been more representatives from the old albums–as it was there was only one song from Get Lost, one from Holiday and one from Wayward Bus to represent all the pre-69 Love Songs Magnetic Fields albums. (I should note that the Get Lost representative, “Smoke and Mirrors” sounded great acoustic. To me it was just shade short of appropriately being called “magical.”) There were a fair number of Gothic Archies songs. I could take it or leave it with many of those songs and there were a good number of cutesy or self-consciously clever songs with the trademark love-is-like- or I-am-like-a- Merritt similes and metaphors, which people were entertained by but aren’t always the best songs the group has in their catalog.

Merritt himself seemed to be the farthest thing from excited about being there. I suspect he basically has to tour to support the new record but he doesn’t go out willingly. He left most of the talking up to Claudia, who did a adequate job of it, and only spoke begrudgingly about the audience. He also didn’t sing lead on many, if not most, of the songs, which seems odd given that a big chunk of the catalog is all him. Claudia, as I mentioned, was quite personable and entertaining for the crowd. She told anecdotes about the city and the band. (Merritt’s non-excitement is probably has a grounding in performance anxiety, but he’s also just an ornery fellow. Also of note: Merritt’s anti-audience diatribes are pretty funny.)

As I mentioned before I didn’t love it or hate it, but I definitely liked it.

Here’s their set list as I heard it:

  • [missed song(s)]
  • All My Little Words
  • Come Back from San Francisco
  • Old Fools
  • Xavier Says
  • Walking My Gargoyle (Gothic Archies)
  • Too Drunk to Dream
  • Till the Bitter End
  • The Night You Can’t Forget
  • I Thought You Were My Boyfriend
  • [not sure, my notes say “rain”]
  • —[intermission]—

  • Scream and Run Away (Gothic Archies)
  • Lovers from the Moon
  • I Wish I Had an Evil Twin
  • Give Me Back My Dreams (the 6ths)
  • Grand Canyon
  • Papa was a Rodeo
  • Drive On, Driver
  • The Nun’s Litany
  • The Tiny Goat (Gothic Archies)
  • Smoke and Mirrors
  • Zombie Boy
  • —[encore]—

  • Three Way
  • Boa Constrictor
  • Take Ecstasy with Me
  • Book of Love

I may not be first in line to buy tickets next time around, but it was a good show. I had a good time.

Update: For more on the ornery (and hilarious) antics of Stephin Merritt, this Spin review of the show is a good place to start.

7 responses to “magnetic fields @ herbst theatre, san francisco (Noise Pop 2008)”

  1. Brandon says:

    i believe the first song was “California Girls”, though something makes me thing another may have proceeded it. not sure, but it was definitely the song before “All My Little Words”.

  2. James says:

    Wow. Your experience was very different from mine. Merritt’s ears don’t respond to applause very well and I think he may have some kind of performance anxiety. This would account for the frequent chiding he gave the others for responding to the audience — he was obviously adhering to some kind of mental regimen that allows him to actually give performances (the thing he said to Claudia about the audience not speaking English, although “there may be cognates”, was both hilarious and a dead giveaway).

    But I found the entire show transcendent. One can tell that the band members know each other, musically, very well and I had a great time just watching them adapt to one another and pick up on subtle aural clues in a completely synth-free environment. The unique acoustic versions of the “Distortion” stuff (“Bitter End” gave me chills) were almost overwhelming in their exquisiteness, and I thought “Rodeo”, “Evil Twin” and “Xavier” were going to make me cry.

    It was quite possibly one of the most extraordinary shows I’ve ever attended.

    The first song was “Zebra”, by Claudia and Daniel, and then “California Girls”, as Brandon notes, but I can’t remember the song immediately preceding the intermission…

  3. Tim says:

    Another “missed song” was “I Don’t Believe You,” but I think that was after “California Girls.”

  4. adrian says:

    James, very cool that you had that experience. Musically they were pretty tight and it was quite obvious that Stephin had some issues with performance anxiety.

    Brandon and Tim, thanks for the help on the setlist.

  5. Brandon says:

    yes to “Zebra”. that was definitely the opener.

    James: i agree regarding the quality of the show. i bought Noise Pop badges for my girlfriend and i just to see this show. $300 later, it was totally worth it. “Grand Canyon” being a particular fave.

    according to interviews etc, Stephin indeed has some hearing issues and audience applause – however ironic – is painful for him. thus the earplug in the left ear, etc. so that’s the deal with that.

    now, let’s see if i can get out of here without 500 spelling errors this time..

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