TVD Live: The
Magnetic Fields at
City Winery, 11/6

Prolific songwriter Stephin Merritt seems to respond best to creative prompts. Sixty-Nine love songs? Sure. A dozen songs that start with the letter I? Easy. One song representing each year of your 50-year-old life? Okay. All have been projects for his band The Magnetic Fields over the years. The latest was 30 songs each clocking in at 2 minutes, 35 seconds or less, called Quickies.

An accompanying tour for the collection, released in May 2020, did not come so quickly, though, due to the pandemic. A series of City Winery residencies for the band across the country, first planned for March 2020, was delayed at least a couple of times until it finally got running this fall, making its most recent stop at the Washington, DC outlet for a three night stand over the weekend.

It’s a compact crew, especially compared to the last time Merritt was here four years ago, amid a spectacular stage set and larger (but largely unseen) backing band of six doing 50 Song Memoir in order over two nights.

Here, evenly spaced across the stage was Merritt, perched on a stool to the right, alongside cellist Sam Davol (who switched to broken bongo from time to time); Shirley Simms on ukulele, vocals and autoharp, and Claudia Gonson on piano, vocals, and toy tambourine.

It was sparse looking compared to the fussy, colorful, toy-filled stage last time. And were they spaced out because of Covid considerations? (Simms and Davol wore masks, except when she was singing or he sipped tea; the audience, packed as they were, had to have shown vaccination proof or negative test results, and were asked to wear masks when not downing wine—about half did).

Perhaps to solve the spacing question, Merritt oversaw the unfolding of an aluminum ladder before the show started that stayed up the whole time, with seemingly no other purpose than to fill the gap between musicians.

Weaving the brief songs from Quickies made it seem like a marathon show on paper—27 songs! The brevity of things like “Castles of America,” with which they began the evening, also had the effect of making perfectly average length favorites like “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” (from the 1999 69 Love Songs) start to overstay its welcome by comparison.

Except for songs so short they seemed blurted out, like “Death Pact (Let’s Make A),” which is all of 17 seconds on the record, the length problem seemed to even out after a while, with the more well-realized Quickies numbers like “Come, Life, Shaker Life!” fitting in with beloved reprisals of some of the 69 Love Songs, whose selections dominated. (Yes, they’re more than 20 years old; no, they don’t get heard enough.) The show balanced a handful of selections from that, the new one and 50 Song Memoir with representations from three other Magnetic Fields albums and one from one of their other bands, The Sixths.

By now, The Magnetic Fields are a kind of chamber folk band, with no electric instruments (save for Simms’ odd occasional oscillations on the Omnichord). Davol adds a yearning undertow on cello; Gonson giving a tasty pop framework to most tunes on piano; Simms hanging tight to ukulele, while Merritt switches between guitar or uke. The latter he showcased in his single solo spot, during the encore, playing “This Little Ukulele” that he wrote for the 2000 indie film Eban and Charley.

Merritt also played some lap guitar and he pulled out a kazoo. But the show didn’t have the kaleidoscopic instrumental versatility of past performances. Indeed, he stuck to the same set list he’s been using the whole tour, adhering to the big, lit-up songbook he flipped through in front of him, not even altering it for fans who might attend more than one night in a city.

Merritt’s deep baritone is a main attraction to his work, though it’s good to have the contrast of the female voices taking lead when they do. He writes in such a low register, his songs haven’t been covered as much as they should have been over the years, though a Peter Gabriel version of “The Book of Love” that’s been used in at least a couple of movie soundtracks has lately become a kind of go-to showcase for singing contestants on European competitions like Holland’s Got Talent or the kids version of The Voice in Germany.

The gorgeous song holds up to all that, but as if to move from the sublime to the ridiculous, they followed it live with the new ditty “The Biggest Tits in History.” The mix of songs with lovely melody and honest sentiment alongside a grab bag of brash, amusing rhymes is the business of the band and they do it very well. The one song they said they were most anxious to play in Washington was the darkly celebratory “The Day the Politicians Died” which followed Merritt’s guiding principles of droll misanthropy.

It’s part of his schtick. When Gonson, who plays the amiable spokeswoman for the band half the time, answered “We love you too!” to a grateful fan at the show’s end, Merritt shot her a look, “No!” If only to keep in character with the final song “I Need a New Heart:” “The words you want to hear / you will never hear from me.”

He never explained the ladder either.

Opening the show solo, Christian Lee Hutson of Los Angeles, had his own array of quirky songs with interesting details. Using a fierce fingerpicking technique, the associate of stars like Phoebe Bridgers, Conor Oberst, and Lucy Dacus, had his own weird Southern California style that caught the audience in rapt attention.

SETLIST
Castles of America
I Don’t Believe in the Sun
Come, Life, Shaker Life!
Come Back from San Francisco
Born on a Train
Andrew in Drag
A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off
Smoke and Mirrors
Quick!
The Day the Politicians Died
’69 Judy Garland
The Book of Love
The Biggest Tits in History
Death Pact (Let’s Make A)
I’m Sorry I Love You
’01 Have You Seen It in the Snow?
Kiss Me Like You Mean It
’66 Wonder Where I’m From
I Don’t Want to Get Over You
My Stupid Boyfriend
It’s Only Time
The Horrible Party
Papa Was a Rodeo
’71 I Think I’ll Make Another World
Give Me Back My Dreams
’14 I Wish I Had Pictures

This Little Ukulele
I Think I Need a New Heart

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