Concert Review: The Magnetic Fields/DeVotchKa at 9:30 Club

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A lot of indie musicians – definitely the Canadian ones – remain grounded and generally honest-to-goodness nice people.  Maybe this has something to do with having to work hard and earn your living day to day, rather than living in a rock star echo chamber filled with hangers-on who never challenge for dominance and always reflect light back towards the center of their solar system. Hell, even a guy who became as big of a rock star as Eddie Vedder gave out his actual cell phone number on the air and for a certain period of time spent (what had to be an overwhelming amount of) his time talking to fans who decided it wasn’t an imposition to call and burden him with whatever inane version of “I love your music!” they just needed to get off their chest.

These are the types of artists that seem you’d want to hang out with and grab a beer.  There are exceptions to every rule, and if I were creating a list of indie musicians I respect but DO NOT want to hang out with, Stephin Merritt would probably be near the top of the list.  Perhaps his demeanor is an affectation of tortured genius, perhaps it’s a deep-seated shyness and/or sense of inadequacy, perhaps he was just having a bad day, and perhaps he’s just an ass.  Whatever it is, though, his anti-social tendencies served to overwhelm The Magnetic Fields’ recent performance at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, despite a plethora of fantastic material, both old and new.

The night started off swimmingly, with DeVotchKa offering their unique brand of music to a mostly full venue. The enthusiastic crowd ranged from late 20s to mid 40s and studiously employed all the memes of ‘90s rock attire; from the unruly and disheveled J. Mascis types to sweater-sporting indie rock nerds to tatted-up chicas to the primly proper Morrissey types. This was a crowd that seemed more Star Trek than Star Wars in their location within the nerd spectrum, and it seems safe to say that the quotient of computer science geeks was high (I actually heard a C++ joke between sets).

DeVotchKa’s talents are first rate, and their acoustic amuse bouche offered up an entirely different vibe than their energetic headliner shows. It was fitting to see couples embracing, for this was more about post-coital bliss than the act itself.  This is largely because it was an acoustic set (using drum pads and electronics as a necessary concession for their complicated instrumentation and orchestral arrangements while stripped down to a three man band).  One of the highlights of the stage setup was that it allowed Nick Urata’s acoustic guitar and voice to shine and highlighted the beauty of the arrangements that is distinctly classy if not classical.

Let’s be clear: DeVotchKa is a headlining act and their material was passionately recognized.  Even acoustic, they should not be opening for anyone except perhaps at a festival or maybe a Dead Can Dance outdoor show. After an altogether too short 45 minutes, they wrapped up and left the appreciative audience appetized, if not sated.

And then, after a brief interlude, it was time for The Magnetic Fields. The raptly attentive and respectful audience thankfully didn’t get too chatty, which was a hugely important consideration for the carefully constructed vibe. The venue wasn’t full of kids glomming onto what they think is cool to enhance their own appeal – Corporate America style — but real music nerds who know the b-sides as well as the “hits.” In this hipster day and age, that’s a nice blast from the past when going to shows was about what you were seeing and hearing rather than being seen (and later heard talking about the fact that you were there).

The Magnetic Fields offer up amusing lyrics presented with Borscht Belt-meets-Prairie Home Companion delivery…and their macabre content ensures that they’re also mildly disturbing…in a good way.  On the precious scale, they exist in the vicinity of Belle and Sebastian but thankfully don’t cross the line into Conner Oberst’s land of twee.  Their slightly off-kilter levity lightens what could otherwise be a mood of laconic irascibility, and keeps the audience attentive and on its toes. Songs are introduced in ways like, “This is yet another revenge fantasy from the new album,” and serve to make you wonder if this band is the equivalent of that nice, quiet neighbor that keeps to himself before completely losing it and putting his neighbors in a spot to be interviewed about just how shocked they are by the carnage.  We know that Axl Rose is crazy, but Merritt just might be the guy to show up to his proverbial Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction with a trench coat and a shotgun. It’s definitely riveting.

At times, tension bubbled up from opposite sides of the stage and become palpable. It seemed entirely possible that Merritt and bandmate Claudia Gonson had different set lists, which led to a few awkward moments – for the audience at least.  Merritt handled this situation with behavior that could be characterized as ranging between aggressively stoic to supremely aggravated.  As the situation presented itself again….and again…acridly pungent interactions between Merritt and Gonson served to punctuate the band’s moments of musical brilliance with awkward animosity.

There was the storytelling bliss of “Reno Dakota.” Then silence.  They brought chills to the back of our necks with “Come Back From San Francisco,” a beautiful Mamas & The Papas-esque harmonization that showcased Merritt’s resonant baritone, but then you heard him sniping, “why don’t you just start the song” before Gonson’s accurate (if snippy) reply, “Because you keep talking.” There were moments when it seemed that he was attempting humor, but if so, his timing is that of the cuckolded husband returning a bit tooooo early from a business trip.

Overall, their show undeniably confirms the prodigious talent behind all the fanboy adulation that The Magnetic Fields – and particularly Merritt – have received over the years, and also leaves an abiding impression that the couple possibly got back together for the wrong reasons and left the partnership’s problems unaddressed. The audience is the couple’s friends – deeply affectionate for them but also disturbed by the their inability to move beyond the train wreck, get back on the rails and move forward at a “normal” trajectory. An objective third party perspective would be that this if this performance was indicative of reality, then The Magnetic Fields is unlikely to last long. So, enjoy the genius while you can, understanding that it’s a tortured sort of genius and knowing how that sort usually ends.  At least the documents of those happier times will still exist in our earphones, and on their tour blog, if not in the flesh.

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.