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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Sublime and uncomfortable moments with Stephin Merritt as The Magnetic Fields play Madison
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Merritt's sour response to his audience's appreciation made me wonder: Would he be happier if no one showed up?
Merritt's sour response to his audience's appreciation made me wonder: Would he be happier if no one showed up?
Credit:Marcelo Krasilcic

The singer and songwriter Stephin Merritt has crafted an astonishing and sweeping body of work. He has done so most notably with his group The Magnetic Fields, as well as with various other projects including The Gothic Archies and The 6ths, and as a solo artist. He drew widely from his repertoire in the Magnetic Fields concert Saturday night at Overture Center's Capitol Theater.

Rendered in quiet arrangements of piano, guitar, cello and bouzouki, the Merritt catalog was gorgeously sung by Merritt, pianist Claudia Gonson and vocalist Shirley Simms, and it yielded up wit, emotional nuance, memorable hooks and crisp, careful rhymes. It was a stirring performance marred only by between-song remarks that were peculiarly contemptuous and bitter.

Perched on a stool, Merritt wore deck shoes and a cap that obscured his eyes as he strummed a bouzouki and sang in his dramatic baritone. He drew giggles as he crooned his wry works, including selections from the Magnetic Fields' recent release Distortion. One of the new tunes he sang was "Too Drunk To Dream," which more or less encapsulates Merritt's patented songwriting blend of drollery, decadence and sentimentality. "I gotta get too drunk to dream," he sang, "because I only dream of you."

Other inspired Merritt-sung moments included the perverse fantasy "I Wish I Had an Evil Twin," the brief, jewel-like "This Little Ukulele" ("This little ukulele tells the truth"), and the Gothic Archies tune "Crows," a horror fable cum love song. The latter was preceded by an amusing debate between Merritt and Gonson over whether it is indeed a song about love, and the introduction "this is a song about love" became a running gag for the rest of the evening.

The song that best affirmed Merritt's skill at the craft of vernacular American songwriting was one he sang, "Papa Was a Rodeo," from the Magnetic Fields' sprawling 1999 release 69 Love Songs. The tune gestures to country-music cliches ("Home was anywhere with diesel gas, love was a trucker's hand"), but like the best country songs it is both funny and sad, and emotionally freighted. I could hear Dolly Parton singing it.

Behind a grand piano, Claudia Gonson introduced numbers, sparred playfully with Merritt and told funny stories from the group's travels. She earned warm applause singing the funny and sweet "Take Ecstasy With Me," and she drew aching emotion from the wrenching new Magnetic Fields song "Courtesan": "Courtesans are not like me / They won't take love very hard." She helped earn the evening's biggest applause when she stood on the piano bench and, with Merritt, sang the grim duet "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!"

Some of the best singing was by Shirley Simms, who sat quietly for much of evening but performed several solos in her sly voice, which is reminiscent of the jazz singer Blossom Dearie's. Especially fine were the funny "California Girls" (refrain: "I hate California girls") and the heartbreaking "Dreams Anymore," another country-inflected song. The singers were accompanied nimbly by cellist Sam Davol and guitarist John Woo.

But for all the sublime interludes, there were numerous uncomfortable moments, as when Gonson, in introducing Merritt's performance of "The Book of Love," said that he had been "annoyed" the evening before by the applause that greeted the song's opening bars. It was one of several instances in which audience members were chided for applauding. "If you don't pause," Merritt instructed Gonson at one point, "they won't clap in that embarrassed little way."

The puzzling remonstrances so intimidated the crowd that at moments audience members near me literally mimed applause, lest the sound of their clapping perturb Merritt. His sour response to his audience's appreciation made me wonder: Would he be happier if no one showed up?

Preceding the Magnetic Fields was an unusual opening act. Performing as the Forewords, Liz Clayton and Paul Lukas gave funny, knowing PowerPoint presentations, one about businesses that move into buildings vacated by fast food restaurants (see Not Fooling Anybody), another about the bizarre world of trade magazines. Their smiling, friendly stage presence compared more than favorably to that of dour Stephin Merritt.

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