Magnetic Fields – The Cathedral, Manchester – 19th March 2010

Posted on April 7, 2010


The Magnetic Fields played an extraordinary 29 songs at the glorious Manchester Cathedral tonight, and their set was as impressive as it was long, offering a beautiful sound that matched the spectacular visuals inside one of Manchester’s oldest buildings. Even with a back catalogue as extensive as theirs, it was an unexpected but pleasant surprise that they treated the audience to such an excess of music.

The line-up tonight consisted of Stephin Merritt (vocals/ukulele), Sam Davol (cello), John Woo (acoustic guitar), Claudia Gonson (vocals/keys/percussion) and Shirley Simms (autoharp/vocals). Witnessing accomplished musicians in complete harmony is always a joy and tonight’s performance offered a clear example of such exceptional musicianship.  Merritt’s voice is warm and unusually deep, whilst Gonson and Simms sing in a very high register (both with tones similar to Kirsty McColl). The contrast this creates is quite extraordinary, with each vocal harmony beautifully in synch. It seemed like the band could have played all night such was the professionalism on display. This is clearly a band that takes great pride in preparing thoroughly for a gig, and with the experience they have gathered comes the kind of seamless performance exhibited tonight.

There were numerous stand-out tracks on the evening. ‘The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side’ showed that The Magnetic Fields can write fantastic love songs, with accessible melodies that you want to sing along to. The tone on Woo’s acoustic guitar was wonderful, and it sounded particularly poignant on this track. Woo mixed smart chord playing, with attractive arpeggios and skilled lead parts, and he proved very quickly that he is an expert acoustic guitar player. ‘The Nun’s Litany’ was another track to resonate with the audience, containing sharp lyrics and an intoxicating vocal melody. The version played tonight differs significantly from the recorded version and it works much better like this. The guitars on the record are drenched with distortion, which muddies the sound to an almost unbearable level, whereas the live take performed here offered a more subtle and picturesque back-drop to the unusual lyrics about lack of sexual activity in a young woman’s life.  The elegant ‘100,000 Fireflies’ was another prominent track on the evening, containing some amazing singing from Gonson.

The Magnetic Fields displayed a vast array of musical knowledge this evening, with songs in different styles and different time signatures, helping to keep the audience silent and captivated throughout. Stephen Merritt is a song-writer capable of playing music from many musical genres and when you see his work performed with the military precision it was tonight, you can only have deep respect for him. His self-deprecating lyrics are often humorous and his ability to write a love song is unquestioned.

This was a wonderful evening of music that had everything; excellent musicianship, a superb sound engineer, a beautifully elegant setting and wonderful songs. Nights like this don’t come around too often, and it will be a gig that will live long in the memories of all who attended.

photography by Sam Ellis

Posted in: Music