Magnetic Fields etc.

A wonderful performance by the Magnetic Fields on Sunday evening (Feb.7) capped off my musical weekend. Two years ago, when Stephin Merritt and his ensemble played at the Old Town School of Folk Music, they were touring in support of a record called Distortion, which did in fact feature a lot of distortion and guitar feedback. There was no distortion or noise during the concert, however, as the Magnetic Fields played everything in a quiet, staid, chamber-like folk style. I remember thinking that as much as I enjoy some of the Magnetic Fields’ more upbeat, pop sort of studio recordings, this unplugged format was really what I preferred to hear, at least in concert.

The Magnetic Fields are back in Chicago for two shows at the Harris Theater (booked in conjunction with the Old Town School), and this time, the group is touring in support of a record, Realism, which actually sounds like that live show from two years ago. Everything’s acoustic and folkie. And so it was in concert again, too. Given Merritt’s mercurial nature, I half-expected him to show up this time with electric guitars, but no, that didn’t happen.

As usual, Merritt sat on a stool at one end of the stage, playing ukulele on some songs, singing lead vocals in his croaky baritone on maybe half of the songs, surveying the rest of the band with a deadpan expression, occasionally offering sarcastic observations. At least, you think they’re sarcastic. He’s so deadpan, it’s hard to tell. Lined up across the stage in chairs, the rest of the band played acoustic guitar, cello (or was that A viola da gamba?), keyboard and autoharp. Claudia Gonson is his main foil, handling much of the song-intro duties and engaging Merritt in odd little dialogues that don’t always go anywhere … all of which is generally pretty amusing.

Merritt’s voice is not the most subtle of instruments, so he wisely divvies up the lead vocals, letting Gonson and Shirley Simms sing the tunes that require more range. And they sounded lovely Sunday, signing in a understated style well-suited to Merritt’s songs. Rather than play a lot of songs from the new record, the Magnetic Fields cherry-picked stuff from throughout their catalogue, going all the way back to early songs such as “100000 Firelies” and even playing a few songs from side project The 6ths. Of course, Merritt & Co. left out a lot of great songs, but that’s always going to be the case with someone who has so many.

The opening act was Laura Barrett, a Canadian folkie who played tinkly tunes on a thumb piano with cute lyrics about subjects such as robot ponies. This is the sort of thing some people will find unbearably precious. I found her charming enough in small doses.

Photos of the Magnetic Fields.

Other shows I saw this past weekend: The Scandinavian jazz group Atomic sounded terrific Friday night at the Green Mill. My photos of Atomic are on the Chicago Reader’s Photo Pit page.

And Mucca Pazza stormed Saturday night into St. Paul’s Cultural Center (an old church converted into a sort of hipster art venue) for a typically festive, raucous performance. I’ll post photos from these shows later in the week. Photos of Mucca Pazza.

Tonight: Efterklang at Lincoln Hall.

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