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“This is a song about a an animal. An animate animal that has suffered what should be a mortal injury,” Stephen Merritt said. You could almost hear the crowd at The Vic Theatre, a good-sized venue in Chicago, craning their necks and opening their ears. It was an eclectic mix of aggressively dressed-down hipsters and aggressively dressed-up men in three-piece suits, sprinkled with equal amounts of people wearing T-shirts and jeans and punks with elaborate, crested hair. “It suffered this mortal injury and survived.” Beat.
“An inspiration to us all,” Merritt said dryly. Then the song “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off” started up, and a wave of laughter swept the crowd. Then they were quiet again, listening to every word the band said, and it was more like a library than a concert. The unfortunate part is, they basically had to be that quiet because the band was playing a version of “Chicken” that lacks some of the verve and bounce of the album version, and they were playing it softly enough that the high-powered hand dryer in the bathroom down the hall could occasionally overpower the singing.
From beginning to end, The Magnetic Fields played a set with a lack of energy that became absolutely puzzling at times.
Now, nobody expects danceable music from these venerable, musicians. Their nerdy intimacy has always been part of their charm, and Merritt himself is famous for his dry wit and his grouchy, Eeyore-like persona. However, they also came to March 27’s show set up the same as when they were touring for 2010’s Realism which was recorded in a folksy, acoustic style. Now, The Magnetic Fields are ostensibly touring for Love at the Bottom of the Sea, a fairly synth-heavy album with a little more pep, of which only four or five tracks made appearances in a long set filled predominantly with material from 69 Love Songs. “Your Girlfriend’s Face” suffered particularly hard from this stripped-down presentation. What was a long fadeout on the album just became Shirley Simms repeating herself, and it came off as very amateurish. “Andrew in Drag” faired a little better, being the only show that received a cheer from the crowd after it was announced, cementing that it’s probably the most essential fan-favorite single The Magnetic Fields have produced in years.
The best part of the night may have been when a microphone fell into a piano and the concert had to be stopped while it was fished out. Merritt entertained the crowd by telling a story about the eternal battle between bunnies and unicorns, and Claudia Gonson accompanied him by playing a bit of “The Entertainer’s Rag” in the background. It was one of the few times The Magnetic Fields engaged the audience rather than running on invisible rails. For the most part, they seemed to be almost sleepwalking from one song to another, and while there was some good quipping (the bunny/unicorn theme was a running gag that Merritt kept up the entire night), it also seemed like the band was eager to get off the stage. Half of the group slinked off during the last song of the set, came back for a half-heated two-song encore and then immediately exited again.
The Magnetic Fields remain excellent songwriters with an impressive discography, and seeing them is certainly a unique concert experience, but frankly, the best rendition of one of their songs that was heard was opener Kelly Hogan’s heartfelt take on “Papa Was a Rodeo.”
The Magnetic Fields at The Vic Theatre on March 27, 2012, setlist:
- “I Die”
- “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off”
- “Your Girlfriend’s Face”
- “Reno Dakota”
- “Come Back From San Francisco”
- “No One Will Ever Love You”
- “I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies”
- “Plant White Roses”
- “Drive on, Driver”
- “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre”
- “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old”
- “The Horrible Party”
- “Smoke and Mirrors”
- “Goin’ Back to the Country”
- “Andrew in Drag”
- “Busby Berkeley Dreams”
- “Boa Constrictor”
- “The Book of Love”
- “Fear of Trains”
- “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”
- “Grand Canyon”
- “It’s Only Time”
- “Smile! No One Cares How You Feel”
- “Tar-Heel Boy”
- “Forever and a Day”