photos by Timothy Norris (note: these photos are from Sunday's show, but the band set up identically on Monday)
The Magnetic Fields closed a two-night stint at the Fonda last night with a beautiful acoustic set of gems from the group's founder and songwriter, Stephin Merritt. The ever-acerbic Merritt, whose lyrics are as precise and well-crafted as a Shaker cabinet, gathered his longtime Magnetic Fields companions – left to right, vocalist Shirley Simms (vocals), Claudia Gonson (piano, vocals), John Woo (acoustic guitar), Sam Davol (cello) and Merritt – to perform soft versions from a few of Merritt's many projects, including the Sixths and Gothic Archies. Author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), a regular Magnetic Field, played accordion, and told a great story about losing his notebook that day at a Starbucks, only to have Merritt's mother enter the same Starbucks, find it and return it.
The show started with Claudia Gonson, who had a headache that was not due to a hangover but apparently felt like one, singing “Zebra,” from 69 Love Songs.. Then the rest of the band ambled onto the stage for “California Girls,” from Magnetic Fields' recent Distortion. The song, which Simms sang, features the memorable two couplets, “They ain't broke, so they put on airs/the faux folk sans derrieres/They breathe coke and they have affairs/with each passing rock star.” Later in the song, the narrator beheads a Cali girl with a chainsaw.
Merritt was kind of a grumpy asshole onstage most of the time, and communicated mainly via silent pauses and coy glances. But, then, most of his songs are about failure and misery, at least those not about the joy of love, and if Merritt's dry-as-sandpaper wit is the price of craftsmanship, he can be a jerk all he wants. Plus, he's not really jerky. Just very very dry. And every time the audience clapped too loud, he closed his ears (he's having ear problems, apparently). There's a parable in there somewhere: tortured artist presents the toil of his labors, but the audience's positive reaction causes him physical pain. What's he to do?
The best part of the night for me was Claudia Gonson singing “Give Me Back My Dreams,” from the Sixths' Hyacinths and Thistles (sung on the album by the Mekons' Sally Timms). I officially have a crush on Claudia Gonson; if you're still in town, Claudia, look me up. I've got Ibuprofen for you. It was followed immediately by Merritt doing “Papa Was a Rodeo.” But there were many memorable moments in this great evening of music. – Randall Roberts