Photo of the Magnetic Fields by Holly Kite.
The renowned NYC-based indie pop group the Magnetic Fields played an electrifying set of old favorites mixed with some of their latest and greatest material at City Winery. The group consists of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Stephin Merritt along with Shirley Simms on co-lead vocals and ukulele, Tony Kaczynski on guitar, Sam Davol on cello, and Chris Ewen on keyboards. Merritt’s sardonic songwriting is the core of the project, but the self-effacing frontman is happy to share the spotlight with his talented friends.
The debuted in 1988 with “100,100 Fireflies,” a lo-fi number which swings from morbid and melancholy to sweetly sentimental; it opens with the memorable line “I have a mandolin/I play it all night long/It makes me want to kill myself.” Their early sound was a blend of synth pop and traditional pop, though their music was much quirkier and more intimate than the likes of Depeche Mode or Frank Sinatra. The Magnetic Fields released some of their best work in the mid-to-late nineties, including the country-flavored The Charm of the Highway Strip. Many fans believe the group peaked with 1999’s 69 Love Songs. The title isn’t just a crude joke: it’s a triple album with 69 songs. The project had many standouts, including set opener “I Don’t Believe in the Sun”; it reminded me of a depressed George Gershwin.
Merrit and Simms traded vocals throughout the evening, and their styles complemented each other well. Merritt’s low crooning gave pathos to slow numbers like “The Book of Love”; Simms gave energetic, spirited readings of even the silliest songs (“The Biggest Tits in History”). The fan-favorite 69 Love Songs made up about half the set, but it also included songs from the mid-nineties (“Desert Island”) and their latest album, 2020’s Quickies.
The City Winery was a great venue for an intimate show with a rich blend of eclectic and acoustic sounds. The newly-opened venue, located in the City Foundry in Midtown, is surprisingly spacious. It has the ambiance of a jazz club but the long tables of a biergarten. It is a bar, restaurant, and concert hall; I had eaten before the show, but my tablemate’s margherita pizza sure was tempting.
The Magnetic Fields wrapped up their spring tour with a show in Montgomery, NY; the venue is also called The City Winery. Our City Winery may not win the “Most Original Bar Name” award, but I still give it high marks. [That’s because it’s a chain! Learn more about City Winery here.—Ed.] Merritt & co. will end the year with three summer shows on the east coast. With any luck, they’ll gift us another collection of NSFW indie pop treasures soon. | Rob Von Nordheim
Click here to check out our interview with the Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt!