Tuesday, February 9th, 2010
The Magnetic Fields and Laura Barrett at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto
Frank YangIf I’m being totally honest, I wasn’t that excited for last night’s Magnetic Fields show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. After all, their last few records didn’t especially bowl me over and I was feeling somewhat pessimistic about what to expect from a performer who’s very much on record as being disdainful of the entire phenomenon of live performance.
I had seen them before at their last visit to Toronto in July 2004 and while my memories of that show are fond, I couldn’t say it was an especially overwhelming performance. But some classic album cramming over the last few days including a 69 Love Songs marathon Sunday night was definitely putting me the right frame of mind. A chance to hear even a few of these songs live for the first time in over half a decade wasn’t to be missed, even if some degree of disappointment was to to be expected.
Toronto’s own Laura Barrett had gotten the nod to open up the North American tour, and so as a former bandmate from way back in the day, I couldn’t help but feel super-proud of her for the achievement. And even more so upon hearing just how good she and her band sounded onstage, not a bit out of place in such a large and formal setting. No longer just a quirky girl with a kalimba, Barrett’s set was impressively confident and full-sounding, with well-arranged violin, banjo, glockenspiel and flute enriching her decidedly odd yet wholly accessible songs, and I was especially surprised at how strong and expressive her vocals have gotten. The warm reception she received was based on far more than just cheering for the home team. To co-opt her joke about it rhyming with her name, it was pure merit.
From the very first song of The Magnetic Fields’ set, I knew that my fears for the evening were going to be completely out of place. Rather than a number from their latest effort Realism or reaching back into their extensive repertoire for a crowd-pleaser, Stephin Merritt and company went sideways in their catalog to the second 6ths effort Hyacinths & Thistles and “Lindy-Lou”. No sir, this was not going to be a typical night. The expected Magnetic Fields lineup of Merritt, John Woo, Sam Davol and Claudia Gonson were in place, seated in a semi-circle, but also on the tour was Shirley Simms, who was a major presence on 69 Love Songs and subsequent records. She would take lead on a number of tracks as well as providing wonderful harmonies on others, also helping compensate a bit for Gonson, who battled through a case of laryngitis to deliver her own numbers. And if Merritt wasn’t enjoying touring, he was hiding it well. Though typically deadpan in his stage banter, he definitely seemed to be in a better mood than on their last visit – he cracked more than the requisite amount of jokes, playfully bantered with Gonson and even laughed out loud at one point. If I didn’t know better, I’d have said he was having fun, which would have been appropriate because the audience certainly was.
The acoustic arrangements of all the songs were also gorgeous to behold. Many still equate the synth/drum machine aesthetic of the early records with classic Magnetic Fields, but those songs are so good that they really lost nothing when translated to acoustic guitar, cello, ukulele, piano and autoharp and I would go so far as to say they sounded even better. After all, my reservations about Realism had nothing to do with the sonics – it’s a gorgeous-sounding record – just the songwriting. And the set list did draw substantially from Realism – and I’ll admit the new stuff sounded better live and mixed in with the other material than it did collected and standalone – but the biggest treats (and gasps of surprise from the audience when introduced) were the old stuff.
With the depth of the Magnetic Fields/Stephin Merritt catalog, it would have been impossible to hear everything everyone would have wanted, but over two sets and almost two hours, they did a pretty good job of touching all the bases, from The Wayward Bus, through all of the Merge-era stuff including a half-dozen Love Songs and through the no-synths trilogy. All were great to hear, but for me the best moments came from having the 6ths material in the mix, including one of my all-time favourite songs in “Falling Out Of Love With You”. It was well-picked as the first set closer because it took me the 15-minute intermission to stop feeling giddy about it. If you were to ask me what my dream concert would be, the answer may well be to hear both 6ths records played live – with the original vocalists. As that’s an impossibility, this was a pretty good substitution. And as a concert, this was pretty well amazing. Stephin Merritt may not like to hit the road very often, but when he does – at least this time – he brought his A-game. One to remember.
Photos: The Magnetic Fields, Laura Barrett @ The Queen Elizabeth Theatre – February 8, 2010
MP3: The Magnetic Fields – “Everything Is One Big Christmas”
MP3: The Magnetic Fields – “The Book Of Love”
MP3: Laura Barrett – “Bluebird”
MP3: Laura Barrett – “Decepticon Island Optimists Club”
Video: The Magnetic Fields – “We Are Having A Hootenanny”
Video: The Magnetic Fields – “Born On A Train”
Video: Laura Barrett – “The Wood Between The Worlds”
MySpace: The Magnetic Fields
Download and savour the new MP3 from The Radio Dept.’s Clinging To A Scheme, finally coming on April 20. SAVOUR IT.
Black Cab Sessions takes Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater for a ride in exchange for a song and NPR is streaming their new album The Golden Archipelago right now, a couple weeks in advance of its February 23 release date. They’re at Lee’s Palace on April 1.
And some concert announcements – San Diegans The Soft Pack, whose self-titled debut is out now, will be at the El Mocambo on April 7 tickets $10 in advance. There’s so A/V materials to help your decision to attend and The Los Angeles Times has a brief interview.
Fanfarlo have finally scheduled a make-up date for their cancelled December appearance – they will make their Toronto debut on April 9 at Lee’s Palace. Keep an eye on those passports this time, fellas!
British post-punk legends Killing Joke bring the reunion to North America including a May 25 show at the Phoenix. The Quietus talks to Jaz and Youth about the reunion and their new album Feast Of Fools, due out in April
Video: Killing Joke – “Pandemonium”
Reported a couple weeks ago and then redacted for jumping the gun on the announcement, The National have added a second show at Massey Hall, this one on June 9. Tickets on sale this Friday at 10AM. No presale this time, so if you’re looking for tickets, get your clicking finger warmed up and do NOT use Firefox.
And cheers to Apple support for getting me my laptop back to me – fully repaired – not four days later as they’d estimated, but four hours. That’s the second time they’ve replaced a logic board in this computer in an afternoon. I’ll just be grateful and not question why the logic board would need to be replaced in the first place…