The Magnetic Fields, The Orpheum: 3/23/12

It has been a  long time since I have written about music. Not to say that I haven’t been going to shows. It’s just I haven’t spent time writing about them or taking photos. But considering the rareness of The Magnetic Fields actually playing for an audience, let alone going on tour, I think it warranted at least a few words.

Needless to say, if they rarely go on tour and seeing as the tour has/had only a few American stops (16 total), they certainly weren’t stopping in San Diego (but somehow Iowa City made the cut). So, Roger and I made the Friday rush hour trek up to the City of Angels’ theatre district for this must-see-at-some-point-in-your-life band.

The Magnetic Fields have a long history and one that is so interesting to some that a documentary was made called Strange Powers. This incredible film was release last spring and I think we manged to get around to watching it in the fall. It takes you through the song writing genius of Stephin Merritt and his support system, including his life-long friend and fellow bandmate, Claudia Gonson. In the film you find that the band operates in a sort of box, filtering out the outside influences of media and fans. They play to play because they need the release. They could care less if you actually enjoy it.

Perhaps this is only partly true, or else they would never tour, never step in front of a crowd. The film follows the making of Distortion, a sort of abstract  album full of experiments. It didn’t fail, but many fans will say it didn’t necessarily fly. Fast forward four years and recently released, Love at the Bottom of the Sea harks back to the reasons why many people fell in love with The Magnetic Fields in the first place. Witty, charming love songs or even the ever so fun anti-love variety. A favorite that hit my ears first by Paste Magazine, “Andrew in Drag”, will no doubt be stuck in your head too after taking a listen.

As for the concert, it fully lived up to my limited expectations. The opener, Bachelorette didn’t grab me as it probably grabbed Stephin, but good on him for touring with a musician he loves. Full of loops and mixes over lapped by vocals, this solo artist who is part of the trend to call herself by a band name, nearly put me to sleep after days of jet lag, hours of driving and a hearty meal. Too bad, so sad because I’m sure the music is good, just not as a live performance.

When The Magnetic Fields sauntered on stage, I felt that the audience were guests to their tea party as they entertained us with polite banter and parlor tricks.  Cellist Sam Davol, guitarist John Woo and vocalist/ukulele player Shirley Simms didn’t add much to the conversation, but were integral to the music (I could have used “instrumental” instead of “integral” but I didn’t want to go there). The set list was perfect with highlights including “Reno Dakota,” “The Book of Love” (that Stephin confessed he needed a lyric sheet to remember by telling a long story about Matthew Broderick in a Broadway performance of The Producers), “Come Back from San Francisco,” “A Chicken with Its Head Cut Off” and of course, my new favorite, “Andrew in Drag.” A short encore wrapped the set up with a bow and sent us on our merry way down the I-5 with a new CD and a new shirt that Stephin had put a bird on.

For those who haven’t spent time with The Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs, do yourself a favor and spend at least 69 hours with the 3-disc album. Your significant other (or future other) will appreciate it.

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