Review and photographs by Jason Spiro
This past Thursday, the Magnetic Fields appeared at Club Helsinki in Hudson. I heard about the show less than a week beforehand from a my-old-school acquaintance via Facebook. and within minutes I purchased a ticket.
For reasons that escape me now, I neglected to see this band at either their last Club Helsinki or Beacon Theater appearances earlier in the year. These dates followed the release of their latest record, Love at the Bottom of the Sea. I remember listening to this record, and at the time, I enjoyed the songs but didn’t fully grasp either the brilliance of the songwriting or the entirely appropriate, sonorous, technically able arrangements.
Revisiting this last album’s material reinforced as correct my otherwise snap decision to attend the concert – although, the live presentation of this and other selections from the band’s oeuvre was entirely different from recorded versions.
Judging from their enthusiasm, the Hudson crowd didn’t have any need for LP reproductions/nostalgia trips/human jukebox regurgitations. Aside from some talking in the bar area, this was a respectful crowd in seemingly rapt attention for the duration of the hour-plus show. In between songs, as applause waned, a shouted song request was heard now and again. If these requests weren’t granted (or dealt with in typically understated humor by Stephin Merritt), the crowd gently but quite audibly dealt with these requests as they might shush misguided children. These call-and-response outbursts were funny, but not as funny as either Mr. Merritt’s ongoing between-song bits or the interactions between Merritt and pianist Claudia Gonson.
The presented material was probably weighted heavily toward selections from the latest record, if not the last few LPs. Here I must admit I was remiss in my duties as quasi-journalist in that I neglected to pack a pen and notebook in my camera bag. So, I cannot report for you a set list. I’m not so intimately familiar with, nor is my memory so good that I can recall with any accuracy, the material presented.
But, at least I got to snap a few pictures. I hadn’t realized this was a band with a strict policy re: photographers at live shows. When I contacted the club for Nippertown, I found this out tout suite — no photos, strictly enforced — and, as quick as a fencer’s parry and thrust I contacted the band’s management. Luckily I found them to be in an accommodating mode and obtained permission. I was pleased to get a photo pass for the first four songs that was dutifully passed on to Club Helsinki management.
I’ve become totally spoiled by my near-unfettered access at rock concerts and other live acts. It was a technical challenge to achieve my usual results in this shortened span of time. I wince at every slightly out of focus photo, but such is the challenge for most working photographers.
Indeed, it must be said that this photo policy of theirs makes for a delightfully uncluttered visual experience that allows the audience member to focus on the band, rather than, say, a dozen glowing cell phone cameras and video recorders either capturing images or being reviewed for quality by – you’ll forgive me – punters/idiots/philistines who overestimate the hindsight appeal of their videographic transgressions. Or don’t forgive me. Hold me to account for my verbosity and apparent lack of regard for the task-at-hand of “reviewing” the show.
Each musician helped make this live presentation of Magnetic Fields material a special experience. Vocalist-ukulele player Shirley Simms was in the pocket as a rhythm player and demonstrated evidence of perfect pitch. In fact, when I heard her on record I suspected she was either mildly auto-tuned or vocoded, but she must be seen and heard to be believed.
The three vocalists took turns on the lead, with Mr. Merritt, Ms. Gonson and Ms. Simms providing second or third harmonies and unisons. The cello and guitar of Sam Davol and John Woo, respectively, were well reinforced by the club sound system. There was a moment about two-thirds of the way through the show when Mr. Davol’s pedalboard made his cello sound very cool and maybe doubled, reverbed, and chorused. I’m sure that I then saw Mr. Merritt lean over towards his bandmate, either to catch the sonority more clearly between the instrument and the house monitors or to spy on Mr. Davol’s pedal preset.
Other than a little bit of stretching out musically, to almost jam together (sans noodling), the band maintained the “I Like Short Songs” approach to arranging and kept songs to two or three minutes in duration.
Reportedly the band likes playing Club Helsinki and even pays great compliments to the chef. I was surprised to hear this from Ms. Simms (who was gracious enough to chat with me after the show), but considering how much care (and, judging from the racks of gear, money) goes into the house sound, it isn’t all that surprising to hear that the food is also great.
I remember the only other time I saw Mr. Merritt play, at the Leonard Street Knitting Factory, with Mr. Davol copping a line from a Bach cello suite as the accompaniment to the vocals. Several years later, my friend Ali used “Papa Was a Rodeo” as an interstitial cue during his one man show in New York City—thanks probably to the influence of his musical collaborator at the time Jeff Richmond. Then some time later I discovered and endeavored to love their first record Charm of the Highway Strip. Now I’m an ardent, if obsequious, admirer of this recording and touring act.
It’s astounding that the band maintains both a facility with current electronica and consistent mastery of songwriting from the beginning of their recorded career to present. The critical noise that follows Magnetic Fields is entirely deserved and, thankfully, there’s no end in sight to the career and the acclaim of Mr. Merritt & Co.
LIVE: The Magnetic Fields @ Club Helsinki, 3/6/12 by Greg Haymes