Magnetic Fields – Barbican, London 23/03

An unusual venue for an unusual band, Stephen Merritt and his band of lovelorn misfits further stamped their unconventionality on a London audience both with their music and their approach to the conventions of a gig playing ‘rock’ band.

Anyone who has listened to Magnetic Fields will know that the label of rock could not be further from the truth. Although willing to experiment with the concept element of the genre with their infectious, and at times, Broadway-esque 69 Love Songs they have also now completed their synth-less trilogy of albums with I, Distortion and their new release, Realism.

The all-seater Barbican seemed appropriately civilised for a band whose band members remained seated throughout the performance, with the band breaking the traditional positioning of the ‘band’ by sitting abreast of each other – no place for egos in a band that contains a eukele, a cello and an autoharp.

“We played a show in Leamington Spa last night,” started vocalist Shirley Simms. The London crowd, as usual didn’t seem to care about the provinces. “Somebody told them that The Magnetic Fields don’t like noise, so they didn’t cheer or applaud….” By the time Simms had finished the anecdote, the respectful Barbican audience felt the need to laugh nervously. We’d been told: there was no need to hold back our appreciation, but then, there was never any danger of that. The rapport with the audience, and among band members further endeared them to London. Humour is a rich vein that runs through both their music and their outlook.   

Opening with ‘Kiss Me Like You Mean It’ and ‘The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side’ from 69 Love Songs but for anyone hoping for a set filled with the poppier moments from that album would have been disappointed. The (slightly disappointing) new album was given an run out with ‘Interlude’, ‘You Must Be Out Of Your Mind’, We’re Having a Hootenanny’ and ‘Always Already Gone’. Further material came from their side-projects The Gothic Archies and The 6ths which is used for soundtracks, scores and collaborations; most notably for the children’s books of Lemony Snicket, with one song featuring Amelia Fletcher from 90’s Twee-pop outfit Heavenly (who were on the rather wonderful Sarah Records), Fletcher, a seasoned musician, looked a touch over-awed to be standing on the same stage.

After the interval (why don’t more gigs have an interval? How very refined) the band played various material from their earlier catalogue such as The Charm of The Highway Strip and The Wayward Bus/Distant Plastic Trees.

The ethereal ‘Umbrellas in London’ from the majestic Get Lost was utterly capitivating and ‘I Don’t really Love You Anymore’ brought a lighter note to the proceedings. Finishing with ‘100,000 Fireflies’ and ‘Papa Was a Rodeo’. Uber-gay eukele pop has never been so good. Unusual, it is true. Unclassifiable, definitely. But live, Magnetic Fields are that rare beast too, in that they sound almost more polished and more accomplished musically than they do on record.


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