The Magnetic Fields/The Forewords; October 11, 2008; The Capitol Theater
The older Stephen Merritt gets, the more bizarre he becomes. I’d gotten used to his strange habit of sticking a finger in his already ear-plugged left ear (yes, I realize he has a hearing problem, it's still weird) to block out the sound of the audience that he obviously has nothing but contempt for, but this was the first time I’ve seen him get verbally abusive toward us. When a fan showed enthusiasm with a decidedly moo-like whoop, he looked disgusted, commenting “I didn’t know they allowed cows in here, but I guess this is Wisconsin.” He even seemed disgusted with the very patient Claudia Gonson, his partner in this band for years, chiding her for not speaking up when counting off the songs because he was the only one without a monitor and couldn’t hear her. Even so, this may be the best Magnetic Fields show I’ve seen.
As in the past, the pair was joined by John Woo and Sam Davol, on guitar and cello respectively, who try their best to stay out of the way and just play the songs. This time there was a new face in the line-up, Shirley Simms who also seemed reluctant to join the between song banter, choosing for the most part to use her microphone only for singing rather than enter into the bickering. Once she sang it was obvious that she was the voice behind many of their songs especially those on the incomparable 69 Love Songs, and I wondered why I hadn’t seen her before. Adding to the perception of Merritt’s belligerence, both she and Claudia took the vocals on songs handled by him on the records.
The set list covered not only Love Songs and their recent release Distortion (thankfully without the distortion), but also songs from the movies Merritt has contributed to. The engaging Pieces of April gave us the lovely “Dreams Anymore,” while the best part about the dismal Eban and Charley must have been “This Little Ukulele.” Also included were two selections from A Tragic Treasury music from the Lemony Snicket movie A Series of Unfortunate Events, “Crows” and “Walking My Gargoyle.” While Merritt couldn’t be bothered to leave his seat for anything, Gonson stood on her piano bench for the crowd pleasing live staple “Yeah, Oh Yeah.” Like every other song, they introduced it as a song about love.
This was the first time I had been in the former Oscar Mayer Theater which had morphed into the Capitol Theater as it became part of the Overture Center. It seemed foreshortened from its previous size, the back wall closer than I remembered it. The rows were filled with intelligent looking, quirky folks and more than a few same sex couples, but it was nowhere near a sell-out. Hopefully that won’t keep them from returning, Merritt may not enjoy performing for us, but Madison certainly seemed to enjoy his performance. Next time though I hope they leave the awkward Power Point opener the Forewords at home.