The Magnetic Fields – Royal Festival Hall
Where: Southbank Centre, London SE1
There’s something extremely civilised about going to a gig at the Southbank. I may be getting old, but I think it’s having a seat: seats mean being able to go for drinks without having to elbow people out of the way, not having your view blocked by a national meeting of the Society For Extremely Tall People and, most importantly, not getting covered in beer or trampled in the mosh pit.
...Yeah, I’m definitely getting old.
I mention this because ‘civilised’ is a fitting word to describe The Magnetic Fields live. They took the stage with the calm air of a group who were old hands at touring and performing. And after 2 decades and 10 albums together, they act more like a collection of old friends who happen to find themselves in front of an audience than a world-renowned indie band. Also, they had a mid-set tea delivery. That’s just straight-up classy.
Though known primarily as a lo-fi synth pop band, tonight they took a different direction, playing an almost entirely acoustic set with a 5 piece band comprised of piano, tenor ukulele, acoustic guitar, harmonium and cello. The setlist struck a nice balance between songs from their new album, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea, and selected tunes from their extensive back catalogue. Several of these songs had been significantly re-worked to make the best of the available instruments, and the arrangements were simply beautiful. The melancholy ‘Book Of Love’ became even more stark and fragile, and ‘Drive On, Driver’, stripped of its screaming distortion, turned into a completely different song.
If The Magnetic Fields have a hook, it is Stephen Merritt. A surprisingly diminutive person in the flesh, Merritt nevertheless possesses one of the deepest voices in rock. It is nothing if not distinctive: cavernous and untrained, cracking whenever he puts too much emotion into the song; he provides the fragile backbone of the band. Merritt is also the songwriter behind the majority of the band’s songs, and the low-key arrangements served to showcase his skill as a songsmith. Melding anger, delicate humanity, and the driest humour known to man, Merritt easily deserves a place alongside Craig Finn and John Darnielle as one of the greats of modern American songwriting.
Lines such as “You can’t go round just saying stuff because it’s pretty/’Cause I no longer drink enough to think you’re witty” turned up regularly, drawing laughs from the audience. Actually the audience did a lot of laughing – the dark humour of Merritt’s songwriting extending to the banter, and the band happily bounced stories off each other and introduced even the most serious subject with a joke. “One of the worst feelings in the world is the feeling that you are going insane” Merritt stated during the introduction to ‘You Must Be Out Of Your Mind’, “Well, this next song is about how annoying that feeling is for everyone else!”
While Merritt was the main force behind the show, the other musicians held their own admirably. The two female members of the band shared vocal duties, providing a counterpoint to Merritt’s bass rumble. A cover of Buffalo Rome’s country song ‘Plant White Roses’ contained some beautiful 3-part harmonies, and proved the band could safely venture outside their usual brand of esoteric indie-pop.
If there was a problem with the gig, it was that it was almost too comfortable. Lacking any real percussion to drive them, the upbeat songs in the set devolved into quiet ballads. ‘Andrew In Drag’ and ‘Your Girlfriend’s Face’, both bouncy cuts from the new album, were dramatically toned down for the evening, and lost much of their punch in the process. A great pity, but the rest of the evening was of such a high quality that it didn’t really matter too much. Also Merritt, despite being the de-facto leader of the band, didn’t really have much of a presence – in fact he seemed extremely shy, shuffling around the stage with a flat cap and bare feet, occasionally leaving the stage altogether when he wasn’t needed for a song. Again, no big deal, but by the end I was wishing that he would acknowledge the audience a touch more...
However even a somewhat overly-quiet set can’t subtract from what was a fantastic evening of top-class songwriting from one of the foremost talents on the scene at the moment. This tour may have passed, but they’ll be back in time – grab a ticket next time they grace these shores, and you won’t be disappointed!