It's rare when a performer encourages his or her audience to clap less, but that's exactly how Stephin Merritt, the diminutive genius behind the Magnetic Fields' (and the Gothic Archies' and Future Bible Heroes' and the 6ths') droll torch songs, began the second show of his band's sold-out, two-night stand at the Aladdin. “Please stop applauding while we tune the instruments,” he sighed in his unmistakable deadpan moments after walking out onstage. “Just talk among yourselves.” In fairness to the notoriously grumpy Merritt, who seems to either loathe or be bored by playing his songs live despite the fact that he has continued to do so for more than 20 years, his latest tour is an entirely acoustic one, so it would be hard to hear whether or not his ukulele was sharp (as he claimed it was) over the din of a crowd.
The occasion of the Magnetic Fields' latest return to Portland is the release of Realism
, their ninth proper album and an acoustic-folk response to 2008's electrified paean to Jesus & Mary Chain-style noise-pop, Distortion
. So the unplugged set-up was appropriate. Playing with four other musicians—an acoustic guitarist, a cellist and longtime vocal collaborators Claudia Gonson on keyboards and Shirley Simms on autoharp—Merritt spent the evening perched on a stool playing only the aforementioned ukulele. Despite a few well-timed one-liners or brief, cryptic song introductions (many of which seemed to be about three-ways), he left most of the evening's bantering duty to Gonson, who gamely kept things moving for the respectfully quiet Portland audience. (Though Merritt did take time out to let us all know that in between songs he was humming the Bumblebee Tuna jingle, which proved to sound particular sonorous delivered in his rumbling-yet-disinterested baritone.)
Though the emphasis was on songs from Realism
(the band played almost the entire album), the two-act, 25-song set spanned Merritt's career, including songs from both 6ths records, and tracks from lesser-known Magnetic Fields collections like 1995's Get Lost
. But predictably, the biggest audience response was to songs from the band's 1999 three-disc opus 69 Love Songs
—which is soon to be re-released on vinyl, and yeah, I've already pre-ordered my copy—like second-act opener “Kiss Me Like You Mean It” and “I Don't Want To Get Over You.” The latter tearjerker, in fact, got such a rapturous response that Gonson had to giggle, “looks like you're all gluttons for punishment.” “Nun's Litany,” off Distortion
, was another crowd-pleaser. Transposed from its recorded wall-of-distortion arrangement into a simple folk song and delivered in Simm's whistling soprano, the dark humor of its lyrics (sample: “I want to be a porno starlet, for that I'll wait 'til Mama's dead/ I'll see my name in lights of scarlet, and get to spend every day in bed”) come to the forefront and become particularly prominent. That probably explains all the laughs it got.
There will be some who were nonplussed by the band's seemingly low energy—they remained seated for the entire performance, eyes mostly glued to setlists—but my biggest complaint is that some clueless Portlander thought it was acceptable to bring a cranky baby to a quiet show that ended at 11:30 at night. For me, the stripped-down and casual aesthetic of the performance made the Aladdin feel even more intimate than it is, and if there were plenty of goosebump-inducing moments of glorious three-part harmony singing or resonant cello lines. Though Gonson quieted the few raucous audience members who yelled out songs by announcing that they were sticking to a planned setlist, there were moments of seeming spontaneity, such as the first song of the encore (for which Merritt didn't even return to the stage) when Australian singer/songwriter Darren Hanlon joined Gonson onstage to sing a track from Merritt's recently released soundtrack to the off-Broadway version of Coraline
. By the time the band finished “100,000 Fireflies,” the final song of its encore and, poignantly, the first single of its career, the entire audience was clapping blissfully, many of them on their feet. And though they said sheepish thank yous and left the stage quickly, you could tell that Merritt and his band enjoyed the warm response. Or, at the very least, they didn't ask us to stop clapping again.
Photo courtesy of Magnetic Fields