Two Rather Beautiful Nights with The Magnetic Fields

Apr 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Entertainment, Sounds

Stephin Merritt by Alterna2 on Flickr

Note: Avant Greensboro is not turning into Avant Carrboro! Also, most of these photos are from Flickr and are not from the shows I went to. Credit is given where deserved.

I have been listening to The Magnetic Fields for about thirteen or fourteen years. I remember driving home from school with my parents in Greensboro and skipping over “Let’s Pretend we’re Bunny Rabbits” because it was “inappropriate.” However, I thought it was truly about rabbits and didn’t see the problem with it.

Last summer, I spent many an evening in a small apartment on McIver Street with a couple of friends, listening to The Magnetic Fields. One of those friends and I washed the dishes in the bathtub, 69 Love Songs as our soundtrack. That friend has since moved to Chicago, where he saw The Magnetic Fields and sent four very excited texts to me as soon as the show was over. Apparently, when “The Book of Love” was played, he would be a “monkey’s [expletive withheld] uncle if everyone in the room wasn’t crying, even the bouncers were tearing up.” [To give you a sense of his use of expletives: he fondly calls his friends “dickcopter.”] The moment I received those texts, my excitement built up – I’d be seeing one of my favorite bands, one which has several beautiful memories attributed to it.

So, of course, April 11 took forever to roll around. When we finally got to the Cat’s Cradle that evening, however, I was about to burst with anticipation. I think I kept reiterating that fact, much likely to the annoyance of my friends.

Shirley Simms and Claudia Gonson by flickr user Alterna2

DeVotchKa opened up the show at exactly 9 o’clock. If you don’t already know, DeVotchKa contributed about 95% of the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack. Normally a quartet, they were playing an acoustic set with three members (Claudia Gonson later referred to them as “DeVotchKa, abbreviated” to which Stephin Merritt said, “I call them DeVotch.”). They incorporate several sounds into their music, creating a mostly gypsy-jazz influenced sound. Their instruments ranged from accordion to trumpet, while their singer, Nick Urata, played guitar. He also whistled throughout their set, a really cool addition. My friends commented that he looked like the tan lovechild of Morrissey and Bryan Ferry. They played for a little less than an hour. Though I had never really listened to them before, I enjoyed it. I haven’t really heard many other bands that sound like them. When they got offstage, my anticipation for the headliners only increased.

The lights went down for The Magnetic Fields at about 10:15, and the five members walked out onstage to much applause. Stephin Merritt, the singer, introduced their first song as follows, in his characteristically monotonous voice: “Hello, we’re The Magnetic Fields; this song is called ‘Hookers and Blow.’” In fact, their first song was “I Die,” off of the album i.  Being in the second row, I could see the entire set up of the band and was impressed.

Their second song was “Chicken With its Head Cut Off” and at that point, a single tear was shed. Not because of the song being sad or anything – it’s a song about a frickin’ decapitated barn animal, as Stephin put it – but because as soon as I heard the first few lyrics, I was thrown back to car rides home from school circa ’99. 69 Love Songs was always in rotation in my parents’ cars.

John Woo and Sam Davol by flickr user Alterna2

Over the course of the next two hours, they played songs from pretty much all of their albums. Highlights included “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” and “Drive On Driver,” which, sung by Shirley Simms (mandouke? 8 string ukulele?) on Distortion, Stephin sang. There was a lot of witty commentary between Stephin and Claudia (piano) throughout the show, gaining a lot of laughs from the crowd (who also contributed their lovely voices to singing along to the songs). When they played “It’s Only Time,” Stephin said in his droll voice, “if you haven’t already proposed to the person standing next to you [referencing “Book of Love,” which they played earlier], here’s your next opportunity. There may or may not be more opportunities later.”

They played their “last” song at around 11:45, a Gothic Archies [one of Stephin’s many side projects] “cover” of “Smile! No One Cares How You Feel” with only John Woo (guitar) and Sam Davol (cello) accompanying Stephin. About three minutes after they walked offstage, the applause brought them back out, this time with Mac McCaughan of Superchunk. They played “Dream Hat” (The 6ths) with him, and then “Tar-Heel Boy” and “Forever and a Day” before ending their show for the night.

It was a truly wonderful experience.

The next day, I was offered a ticket to night two for $20 (ten dollars less than the price day of) and a free ride. After much debate, going between staying home and writing a paper or going to Chapel Hill to see my favorite band, I decided to stay home and let my ride know I’d have to miss out. I left work at around 5:30, same time as usual, and about three minutes into the drive, “Busby Berkeley Dreams” came on the mixtape I had made for my car. At that moment, I texted my ride again and asked if he was still in town – he was.

Claudia and I (way too excited.)

Two hours later, after a dinner and coffee at Milltown, I was back in the crowd at the Cat’s Cradle, watching DeVotchKa. This time I stayed in the back of the crowd; until I got a text from my ride asking for the keys to his car (I had borrowed them for a moment.) I walked out to the front of the venue to wait for him, and the first person I saw was Claudia Gonson, talking on the phone. I was slightly in awe; she’s been one of my favorite musicians for the past thirteen years of my life. Like the Magnetic Fields fangirl I am, I waited quietly for my friend to bring back his keys, pretty much to have a reason to wait to talk to Claudia. After she got off the phone, I approached her, nervous and shy. As soon as I said hello, I had no idea what to say. She asked if I wanted to tell her a story, and I said no, but what could I even say to her?

“I’ve been listening to your band for thirteen years,” I informed her. She laughed.

“Me too,” she replied. “Well, a little longer.”

We talked briefly about how my parents wouldn’t let me listen to “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits” and she asked a roadie if he would take a picture of her and “this really nice girl.” Before she went back inside, she asked my name. When I told her it was Avalon, she said, “Wow, you must have really rock n’ roll parents!”

I’m named after a Roxy Music song, but most people assume it’s from King Arthur literature. She was the first person to immediately realize what I was named after, and that was really cool to me. End fangirl.

I ended up in the second row for the show again. Their setlist was the same, but they had different witty jokes from last night. Stephin said there was a serial killer loose in the building, and throughout the show they made references to where said serial killer might be (“The Grand Canyon,” “Come Back from San Francisco,” and “Swinging London”). Apparently, Claudia had had a dream about her sister chasing her with a kitchen knife the night before. Stephin questioned the kind of knife, to which Claudia said, “The big scary choppy kind! The kind you picture when someone is chasing you!”

Stephin Merritt by Dani Canto

“Maybe she was giving it to you as a present,” Stephin offered. “And she was chasing you because you were running away from it.”

When they played “The Book of Love,” Stephin left out the middle verse (“I love it when you sing to me…”), but it was still a beautiful rendition. This night, my favorite song they played was “Plant White Roses.” Stephin also sang “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old” beautifully, in his deep bass voice.

The setlist was primarily the same as the night before, but instead of Mac coming on for “Dream Hats,” Tom Hagerman of DeVotchKa came out with his accordion. They did a really cool rendition of “Love is like Jazz.” That song is so much cooler live – all of the members of the band were fucking around with their instruments, and Claudia grabbed a beer bottle out of an audience member’s hand and blew into it to add her own improv.

Two beautiful, beautiful nights of The Magnetic Fields, and though I left the first thinking it was perfect, meeting Claudia was the icing on the cake. I’m glad I ultimately decided to go for night two.

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One Comment to “Two Rather Beautiful Nights with The Magnetic Fields”

  1. DD Thornton says:

    I haven't seen The Magnetic Fields since April 2000, when they put on a great performance a few doors down from Cats Cradle at The Arts Center. Sounds like an awesome pair of shows this week. Wish I could have been there and I wish you had taken your camera!

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