And there is something in a Magnetic Fields record for everyone: Their music pulls from synth-pop, electronica, indie rock, country; their colorful cast of characters plays every kind of instrument/noisemaker known to humankind (and perhaps some that aren't); and the gender-bending couplets devised by mastermind Stephin Merritt playfully or painfully tug at one's heartstrings.
The Sheldon -- a concert setting at once intimate and formal -- underscored the band's deceptively unembellished sound. At times the only sounds coming from the stage were a voice and a kazoo, or the gentle pluck of a guitar string. The hushed crowd and crystal-clear stage lights seemed occasionally to dazzle Mr. Merritt, whose first words to the crowd were, "It's really bright in here." Pianist and longtime friend Claudia Gonson agreed, and then followed up with, "I've been eavesdropping on you. You're all very good-looking -- must be all the outdoor activity." ("Is she mistaking this for Colorado?" the man to my left whispered, giving me a case of the church giggles.)
Opening with "I Die," a waltzy ode to beautiful, oblivious youth from 2004's concept record "I," we were marched steadily through the Fields' 20-plus year repertoire of songs about marriage, drag queens and, yes, unfortunate barnyard animals ("A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off"). All songs clocked in well under two minutes and the majority were delivered in the key of A minor. Merritt, Gonson, and banjoist Shirley Simms shared vocal duties, but of the five people on stage (Gonson on piano, Simms on ukulele, John Woo on acoustic guitar [with slide!], Sam Davol on cello, and Merritt in front of a platform of sound-making devices that included a toy keyboard and a synthesizer) only Merritt and Gonson addressed the crowd -- often making semi-snide observations about the order of the set list or the fact that Simms and Woo kept needing to tune their instruments. Their good-natured banter, coupled with the piquant lyrics of much the Magnetic Fields' material, kept the crowd laughing almost as much as applauding.
Gonson and Simms' voices were clear as bells, and Merritt's trademark resonant super-bass was as deadpan in speech as it sounds on a record. Before "Smoke and Mirrors," the band brought out 14-year-old songstress Gal Musette, the opening act and a French speaker who donated her skills to the spoken-word, call-and-response bridge of the song. (Unfortunately I understood only the English-singing part of the bridge. But it seemed like she knew what she was talking about.) "Here's our little friend," announced Gonson by way of introduction, eliciting this admonishment from Merritt: "In the South, I believe ‘little friend' refers to 'significant other'."
The repartee between Merritt and Gonson, his friend since high school, left me time between songs to wonder any number of things: such as, "What is that instrument he's playing, the one where he blows into something and it makes the keyboard play?" (Answer: melodica). Also: "If Oscar Wilde had been a college student in the early nineties, would he and Stephin Merritt have been frenemies?" Gonson's cajoling humanizes the famously gruff Merritt, and their rapid-fire exchanges -- between Merritt's sips of wine -- was as entertaining as the music.
The band members' ease with and ear for each other is striking. During a truly hilarious riff on improvisational jazz called, of course, "Love Is Like Jazz," the band's impressive depth of genre knowledge and irony both skewered and paid homage to two things that can be quite ridiculous: love and jazz. As Merritt hissed into the microphone, Gonson tickled the soprano keys and Davol ran up and down the cello strings -- it was minimal and silly, or brilliant, or cloying, or any of the adjectives that are used to describe the Magnetic Fields.
The band made a dent in old, middle-aged and young material -- just shy of 30 songs in about an hour and a half. Although the night had begun with lighter material, jaunty little crowd-pleasers from "69 Love Songs" like "Reno Dakota," by the end the band -- and maybe the crowd -- seemed to be sliding into more wistful territory.
"This is the last chance to propose to that person sitting next to you," announced Gonson before the final song of the encore, "Forever And A Day." Although I've heard that Merritt hates the sound of applause, we couldn't stop ourselves from a long, loud standing ovation.
A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
Your Girlfriend's Face
Come Back From San Francisco
Love Is Like Jazz
No One Will Ever Love You
I've Run Away to Join the Fairies
Plant White Roses
Drive on, Driver
My Husband's Pied-A-Terre
The Horrible Party
Smoke and Mirrors (feat. Gal Musette)
Goin' Back to the Country
Andrew in Drag
I Don't Really Love You Anymore
Busby Berkeley Dreams
The Book of Love
Fear of Trains
You Must Be Out of Your Mind
It's Only Time
All My Little Words
Forever and a Day