Magnetic Fields Trinity-St. Paul's Church, Toronto ON - July 3, 2004
Published Aug 01, 2004As the Magnetic Fields returned for an encore basking in a standing ovation, pianist Claudia Gonson expressed her gratitude: "That's so sweet! You're too kind." "So are we," deadpanned singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt, who is known for being a curmudgeon who has to be coaxed on to a stage. But other than that offhand quip, Merritt was downright jovial in his own drier-than-thou manner. It's safe to say that no one expected him to take his long mic cord and roam behind the church's pipe organ, playfully thrusting his arms in the air during "Yeah Oh Yeah," his Punch-and-Judy duet with Gonson, who was equally playful standing on her piano stool. The extremely amiable Gonson was his avid foil through the entire show, engaging him in long tangents about "sad clown" and "red balloon" motifs in film this is a band that formed at Harvard, remember. Judging by the rapturous reception from the adoring crowd the woman sitting behind me flew in from Winnipeg for both shows Merritt could have turned his back to the crowd and mumbled his ukulele ditties to himself, and Toronto's geek elite would have snapped it up. And why not? In a post-DJ culture of hype-heavy bloggers who think that anything remotely resembling a melody is a pop masterpiece, Stephin Merritt is like, so way beyond even genius territory. The fact that most of his songs clock in at three minutes meant that we were treated to veritable banquet of riches in a set list featuring over 20 songs culled from i, Pieces of April, 69 Love Songs, and one each from Get Lost and House of Tomorrow. Partially because of Merritt's hearing problems gain in one ear, loss in the other the band is now all-acoustic, with Merritt sticking solely to the ukulele and Gonson abandoning her drums to focus on the piano; Sam Davol remains on cello, while John Woo switches between acoustic guitar and banjo. Some older songs were wonderfully re-arranged for this format, including a cello-driven "Death of Ferdinand DeSaussure" and "Come Back from San Francisco" as sung by Merritt, which elicited instant swoons of approval. "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" didn't need drums and a disco pulse to be a fully-realised pop song, but the band did seem to stumble on the slower, more directed torch songs like "Infinitely Late at Night." Live, some of the clever rhymes come across more like punch lines than poetry, but that's just as much a testament to the fact that the audience was listening intently and hanging on every word. Part of the reason for that was that this was one of the quietest shows in recent memory, and likely the only one we've ever seen where the performer physically winces at the sound of applause. Who knows when we'll see this band play live again, but on the surface it seemed like Merritt was enjoying himself almost as much as we were.