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The Magnetic Fields Impress At Harris Theater

By Veronica Murtagh in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 11, 2010 10:00PM

Artwork via The Magnetic Fields' MySpace
Recounting an intimate and first experience with the live music of The Magnetic Fields shouldn't be an exercise in summarizing, or critiquing, their setlist choices. You could have played their records 100,000 times over the past decade and memorized every word, but none of this would prepare you for the first time you hear Stephin Merritt's voice command the still air of a theater of devoted fans, then subsequently break every one of their hearts.

The Harris Theater at Millennium Park, in connection with the Old Town School of Folk Music, played host to two performances of The Magnetic Fields Sunday and Monday evening. The polished space is sprawling, but felt tiny at Sunday night's sold-out show. A stage built large enough to house dance and orchestra performances took on a special magic when flanked by only a few bodies. Opener Laura Barrett and her two accompanists led the audience through an entertaining mix of quirky, humorous and at one point, interactive, storybook songs made serious by way of Barrett's extremely capable and obviously classicly trained voice. Barrett's simplistic but charming song themes served as an excellent transition into the melodies of The Magnetic Fields.

Somehow Merritt's expected grumpy demeanor and unwillingness to make eye contact with the audience, only made for a more intimate performance. Claudia Gonson played off Merritt's eccentricities like only a longtime friend and collaborator could. Their dynamic was incredibly personal to watch firsthand and it was easy to see why they've been able to create such connective music together over the years. Where one lacked strength, the other shined, a dynamic that was not only visible in their interactions, but audible in the night's music.

There's a crisp and absolute beauty that soars from beneath the mumbling top layer of Merritt's voice live. We weren't expecting such passionate notes from the diminutive man known for his dislike of performance. Merritt's first notes of the show found their home nestled in The 6th's Lindy-Lou and kept us in equal wide-eyed amazement across a career spanning selection that included personal, long-time favorite I Don't Want To Get Over You and new favorite off Realism, You Must Be Out Of Your Mind. Gonson was the only person in the theater Merritt made eye contact with across a lengthy, two-part show, but it only made us feel all the more special, like we were watching something we weren't meant to be observing.

While Merritt never faltered, a master of his own intonation, Gonson's vocal contributions seemed far less studied. Merritt was almost too good, and in many ways Gonson's not quite on point voice added to, not took away from the show. Like their interactions with the audience, their personal strengths filled the small pockets of each other's weaknesses and left a very human imprint on an evening of powerful lyrics and beautiful melodies that made us wonder why we'd waited so damn long to seek out a Magnetic Fields performance.