mon 22/07/2024

Magnetic Fields, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Magnetic Fields, Barbican Hall

Magnetic Fields, Barbican Hall

Ghost princesses and wolf boys in a strange and emotional night

Stephin Merritt: strange man, great band

The Magnetic Fields were in London for a concert that could only have been, for them, a less frenetic affair than their last appearance in the capital a couple of years ago, when they arrived at the airport to find that their entire collection of musical instruments had failed to follow them.

On that occasion they had only a few hours to find replacements - a tall order, given that their line-up features a cello, an autoharp and a ukulele, as well as a keyboard and an acoustic guitar; which gives the uninitiated a flavour of what they sound like. Add the lugubrious baritone of Merritt, plus the vocal contributions of the two female band members, and you begin to get the picture.

To flesh it out, here are a couple of snippets from their eminently quotable lyrics: “I’ve done so much crying, flesh has left my bones; I can play my ribcage like a xylophone” (“Xylophone”); or, more poignantly, indeed desolately: “All the umbrellas in London couldn’t stop this rain, and all the dope in New York couldn’t stop this pain” (“Umbrellas in London”).

It would be easy but misleading to speak of the Magnetic Fields as being Merritt plus various others; they are in fact a proper group, and this was emphasised by their positioning on the Barbican stage, the five of them arranged in an arc that gave them all equal weight, with Merritt sitting to the side.

This was a delightful show, and one that reminded me why we go to see live music: in the hands and voices of these people, the songs came alive; their personalities lent substance to music that on disc can sound, at times, arch and self-regarding. Merritt, portly and deadpan in his patchwork cap, sat and sang and plinked away on his ukulele, and made me laugh out loud in between songs with lines such as: “This is a song called ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’. It’s a complete lie from beginning to end,” while the rest of the band played with diligent concentration and keyboardist and singer Claudia Gonson chipped in with a quip or two of her own.

A substantial portion of the songs came from their recent Realism album, but they also delved into albums such as their three-disc epic, 69 Love Songs, as well tangential pieces such as “Looking for Love (In the Hall of Mirrors)”, from their side project, the 6ths, and “Shipwrecked”, a tune from their contribution to the audio-book version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (Merritt and Snicket, aka Daniel Handler, are old pals, it seems: Handler played accordion on some of those 69 love songs).

At times the songs drifted along; at times, especially on the darker tunes such as “Always Already Gone” (“So this is the last time I cry in the dawn”), it was desperately, compellingly sad. It ended with Merritt finally taking centre stage. During the closing song, “Papa Was a Rodeo”, he actually stood up and pootled around, cracking his microphone lead like a whip, except with absolutely no vigour or conviction. What a strange man; what a great band; and what a lovely, sad, funny evening. 

Below: Video of "I don't want to get over you":

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Spot on! It was a great night - i've uploaded some photos on my Flickr linked below

Great night indeed - but that photo is not of Stephin Merritt.

Yep a really great night, and indeed, that photo isn't Stephin Merritt.

Photo has been changed - even if I thought the last one was of Mr Merritt..

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