Written By Michael Wood Tuesday, March 4th, 2008
The Magnetic Fields at Town Hall, New York City
Strung along the stage at New York's Town Hall are Magnetic Fields. "We are here to promote our new record, erm, Distortion" says Claudia Gonson sitting behind a piano looking nervously across to the mercurial yet miserable Stephin Merritt and in the next hour and a half they will craft music worth crossing the Earth for.
For the uninitiated Magnetic Fields are a strange combination of New York curio quirks. The lead performer Merritt pushes a finger in is ear to deaden the sound of applause - a medical thing - but as a symbol of the band's reluctance to conform to a norm of pop music it is telling.
More a recital than a gig they are a mandolin, a piano, a cello, am acoustic guitar and drafted in singer Shirley Simms who begins the night with the ironic yet bitter paean to axe attacks California Girls.
So the scene is set with Gonson - all Annie Hall chic and disorganisation - playing good wife to Merritt's sniped, self depreciating one liners and perhaps this would not play elsewhere but this is the home town and Magnetic Fields are in accepting company.
They run through the love song for the City - Come Back From San Francisco - which sounds like it is on the edge of shattering and Gonson offers that that tune comes from the seminal 69 Love Songs which is a hard to follow work and one that has forced the band into new directions over the past decade. The noise pop of Distortion is missing tonight and tracks are acoustic, beautiful, chipped from marble.
Old Fools is a typical example with the strings of a cello replacing feedback howls it is rendered different and softer and the snide Merritt is replaced by one heartfelt and tender. For a band that delight in playfulness the soul shows bright tonight.
The set list meanders around the newer work dipping back to include Lovers On The Moon which is shorn of its electro pop beginnings of fifteen years ago and arrives fresh and wholeheartedly. They fiddle with tracks from spin off band The Gothic Archies and as if to underline the point that this is a performance and not a gig they take a break, an interval.
I Thought I Was Your Boyfriend is plucked from quirky to quality and The Nun's Litany has vocal changed from Shirley to Stephin and raises chuckles. No chuckle, no not even the sound of a pin dropping as Stephin pours heart, soul, energy and endeavour into a breaking rendition of Papa Was A Rodeo which stands as the greatest version of any song I've heard live. Every line filled with bittersweet promise and hope for a love not lost.
There are dry eyes in the house but they are not mine.
Am encore includes a funky version of Three Way, a stripped back Claudia moving through Take Ecstacy With Me and ends on Stephin's solo rendition of The Book Of Love and the night is done.
The globe navigated and the prize priceless.