The Magnetic Fields, The Barbican, London, March 22, 2010
(picture from their website, Seattle, 2008)
Stephin Merritt is the opposite of the received idea of rock singer as flamboyant main man. But in a way he is a prima donna of his own making, low profile and curmudgeonly, not even taking the lead part on many of his own songs but strumming his ukelele gently away side stage, leaving the introductions to Claudia Gonson and the singing to Claudia and Shirley Simms, whose voices are pure and lovely compared to his sometimes comic lugubrious bass.
I'm sure the Barbican is resplendent and inviting on a warm summer evening but on a damp March night it is unprepossessing and godforasken, set in a nightmare of high rise London architecture. But the auditorium is open and spacious and it looked as if the London audience were going to get the best deal of the three British dates on the tour with reports from Manchester Cathedral and Leamington Spa suggesting shortcomings not necessarily the fault of the performers.
The two hours, in two halves, treated us to most of the new album, Realism, which has grown to stand alongside some of their best work after a few more hearings, and a first half that included several of their 'greatest hits' was an enormous treat. Being 'songs about love songs', sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes darkly funny or knowingly kitsch, there's an elusive quality to the sensibility that is its main attraction. It has an insolence that is both sour and attractive at once, 'bittersweet' you might say if your thesaurus was not a very good one.
Almost perversely, last time they were in London at the Cadogan Hall, when it had rained in torrents all day long, they didn't play All the Umbrellas in London, but we were treated to a sparse arrangement of it here, none of the songs being extended to anything beyond their perfect compositional length. And Claudia apologized on one song for having missed out a verse, explaining away the omission inadequately with reasons why she had left it out. 'Not even when it's written down in front of you?', asked Merritt, a little tart (as it were).
Seated, self-deprocating and with a wonderful clarity of sound, The Magnetic Fields eschew or sidestep every rock concert cliche, mainly because they aren't a rock, indie or even pop group at all but something, while consciously 'art-house', not readily classified except by the wit and genius of the songwriting and the understatement of the musicianship and presentation. With their previous appearance in London already among my list of favourite ever events, this was if anything better than that and not only due to having such good seats.
Not having announced, as they previously have, that there would be no encore, it was to be hoped there would be this time as we had not yet heard Papa was a Rodeo or The Book of Love. So the encore remedied half of that by coming back to finish with the classic Rodeo, a colossal performance with Stephin commanding the stage in an off-hand wander around, a deliberately half-hearted swing of the microphone and a sublime rendering of one of the finest songs in pop music history. A masterful and rapturously received finale that confirms them as still on the top of their gorgeous and merciless game. As I immediately foresaw when the tickets went on sale some months ago, the highlight of 2010 came early.
Even greater excitement was to come when I wrecklessly thought I had plenty of time to get back to Victoria for the coach home and suggested one more drink. This meant a knife-edge race against time on the tube from Moorgate via St. Pancras to Victoria, the old train rattling through the tunnels in response to my desperate urgings, a rush to the coach station to arrive at 11.32 for my 11.30 bus ride, the kindly driver letting me on to a coach with only four other passengers, my good luck apparently due to the Portsmouth coach going from berth number one, right at the end, and temporarily blocked in by coaches going elsewhere.
So, eternally grateful to the nice man from National Express, it was a fine grandstand finish to a brilliant evening but I may be going back to my old plan of being conspicuously early for dates and meetings rather than risk that again, which was nearly the most expensive 'one last drink' I've ever had.