(Or, The Magnetic Fields live, Old Town School of Folk Music, Saturday, 3/15/2008, 7 p.m.)
Stephin Merritt must be a master at avoiding eye contact by now. His pupils slide right over my friend and me as we try to smile at him outside the Old Town School of Folk Music's concert hall in Chicago. He just keeps on bustling by in his loafers and squatness-enhancing little hat. We had the pleasure of attending one of six sold-out shows The Magnetic Fields played at the Old Town School this weekend, and it's never been so delightful to watch such a grudging performer. Throughout the set, Merritt strummed a bouzouki, sang in his drowsy baritone, and kept those eyes rolled toward unknown points on the ceiling or stage. In short, he plays the peeved headmaster to his bandmates and audience: "All of us are very excited to get to the merch table," he grumbled, in that not-exactly-hinting way, a couple songs before an intermission.
For those who've never seen TMF live before (this was my first time), it's as removed as possible from the electro-pop chintz of The Wayward Bus or the feedback flood of the new album Distortion. Claudia Gonson plays piano and sings; Sam Davol plays cello; John Woo plays acoustic guitar, and, at least for these shows, Shirley Simms (heard on Distortion and 69 Love Songs) sang some sweetly mocking leads, especially on the set's opener, "California Girls," probably Distortion's best track. This video isn't from the Chicago shows, but this is basically what it's like:
The arrangements are deceptively spare and simple. In between all the nervous laughs of, say, "The Nun's Litany," Merritt's vocal melody fills the place with wishes and loneliness. For all those bored looks and press quotes about how he hates performing live, Merritt's also set up something that'll make the songs grow on people, even those who've previously enjoyed them just for silly kitsch value.
Sitting on stools at opposite ends of the stage, Merritt and Simms complement each other's stoicism. If there's an expression in Simms' eyes, her bangs cover it up. Their faces almost never match the humor or playfulness of Merritt's lyrics: Taking the lead on "Come Back From San Francisco," Simms gives up just the tiniest smirk after the line "I miss doing the wild thing with you," and that's about it. So it's up to Gonson to be, you know, funny and likable and cute and stuff. In fact, she is so goddamn charming that I can't blame people for writing vampire slash about her, or posting her astrology chart for your web-creepiness convenience. Before the night's out, Gonson will tell us all about her socks, which are decorated with cartoons of little happy teeth and angry teeth, so I guess she's asking for that kind of fandom. When Merritt false-starts "I Don't Believe You," in the wrong key, she not only reminds him that it's in C, but also plays the note and aims a gleefully chirped "Ceeeeee!" at his unamused lump of a face. Plus, she points out, with equal cheer, that the song "Zombie Boy" is about fucking dead people (she used more or less those words).
About 15 songs in, solo artist and Mekon Sally Timms just bounces into the place, tall and stately, and joins the band for a lovely vocal on "Give Me Back My Dreams," a song she sang for one of Merritt's other projects, The 6ths. After the show, Keith pointed out that the set totally skipped over The Charm Of The Highway Strip, an album that's pretty well-liked around these parts. Other than that, the 22-song set and four-song encore got around Merritt's catalog nicely. Additional highlights: "Lovers From The Moon"; "Old Fools"; "Too Drunk To Dream"; "I Wish I Had An Evil Twin"; "Papa Was A Rodeo."