IOWA CITY — Seeing The Magnetic Fields in concert is a very different experience than hearing The Magnetic Fields on a CD. The audience attraction is strong from both experiences, even if they’re polar opposites.
The retro-poppy electronic soundscapes from the studio are all but gone from the live acoustic shows. But lead singer and founder Stephin Merritt did bring a few toys to a sold-out Mission Creek Festival concert on March 27 at the Englert Theatre.
He played small, air-powered harmonium and melodica keyboards, as well as kazoo. His bandmates played more traditional instruments — piano and guitar — adding in the quirky twists of ukulele and cello.
The result is an intimate sound where the searing lyrics punch through the instrumentals at every turn. That’s a sublime luxury in a rock concert.
The Magnetic Fields elevates quirk to an art form. Happy-go-lucky melodies wrap around sardonic revenge fantasies and relationship angst. Merritt says his inspiration comes from eavesdropping on conversations at bars, as well as his own life experiences and those of the people he knows.
The result is an engaging universal appeal. Who hasn’t wanted to order a mafia hit at the end of a relationship? “Your Girlfriend’s Face” becomes a guilty pleasure as we laugh aloud at the possibilities. Or lamented a cheating lover, as in “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre,” where everyone’s welcome at the groovy love nest but the spouse. Or attended a “Horrible Party,” where kazoo and a Caribbean vibe add a kicky contrast to the dire lyrics.
Merritt takes our darkest thoughts and spins them into intoxicating brews of “if onlys,” bouncing merrily atop of the music. His raw, rich bass/baritone plummmets to emotional depths and grates on the heights, creating an eerie vocal made strangely more engaging by his lack of attention to pitch and phrasing.
His laconic, droll delivery whether speaking or singing keeps listeners a little off-balance, which I’m sure is his intention. A man of few words, when he says, “This is a song about a chicken,” that’s it, a song about a chicken.
He’s surrounded by accomplished musicians who make it all palatable, appealing and marketable, with Sam Davol on cello, John Woo on acoustic guitar, Claudia Gonson on piano and vocals and Shirley Simms on ukulele and vocals.
In “I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies,” Davol’s haunting cello creates the perfect emotional landscape when Merritt intones, “this mortal world has lost its charms.”
Not every relationship song is doom and gloom. “Forever and a Day” would be the most gorgeous song to sing at wedding, melting everyone who hears the lyrics that drip with simple sentiment.
Now if only the indie band can find the more mainstream audience it deserves. But maybe that would take away part of the mystique.
Atlanta songstress Kelly Hogan opened the show, with her guitar and bass players enveloping her many moods, from Southern rootsy rock to beltin’ blues. Her honest, earnest style provided a natural complement to Merritt and his magnetic fields of dreams.
The Mission Creek Festival continues today with six events on the schedule for this evening starting at 6 p.m. that includes Kimya Dawson at Blue Moose Tap House, Caroline and the Goodnight Sleeps at The Mill and Black Milk at Gabes.
Mission Creek features more than 85 performances and we highlight some of the best here.
Below are photos from Tuesday, the opening day of the festival. Mission Creek runs through Sunday.