Concert Review: Night 1, The Magnetic Fields Perform 69 Love Songs

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A milestone tour marking the 25th anniversary of 69 Love Songs, a full house awaited The Magnetic Fields, there to experience live the album so often revisited, replayed, and relived on record. 

03/24/24 – Roadrunner

Boston’s Roadrunner was the first stop on The Magnetic Fields’ international tour, playing the entirety of their seminal album 69 Love Songs over two nights. “This is show number one, night number one, of the thousandth time we’ve done these songs,” quipped vocalist and band founder Stephin Merritt as the eight piece ensemble at Roadrunner settled into their spaces on stage. 

And how different 69 Love Songs was in person than it is on record. It began gently, staying true to the album’s song order. The ensemble fell into the first song “Absolutely Cuckoo” coolly and without ceremony or pretense. The set remained soft, partly due to the tender instrumentation, drumless and vocal-focused, but also because the energy in the room was that of silent reverence. Not really a concert you belt out the lyrics to—rather, most of the audience sat in tranquil observance, lightly humming and deeply listening. Some had their eyes closed while others hung onto their partners, allowing the album to wash over them as one through-composed recital. With appreciative applause between songs, the audience was mindful not to disrupt the flow. Hearing the album in its original configuration, it was almost like watching a play. 

The ensemble moved swiftly through the tracks, with interstitial moments of audience banter. Though they performed sans drummer, the band was more than percussive with an instrumentation that included cello, banjo, acoustic and electric guitars, ukuleles, electronics, synths, and various auxiliary percussion, which Merritt had a lot of fun with. 

The second track “I Don’t Believe in the Sun,” provided a spotlight for Merritt’s irresistible natural bass voice—slow and satisfyingly drawn out. Similarly, “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old” reached deftly into bafflingly low vocal ranges, accompanied by dulcet fingerstyle guitar from John Woo. 

The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” added an upbeat flare towards the beginning of the set, showcasing endearing drum machines and yet more endearing guest vocals from Dudley Klute. Cellist Sam Davol beefed up this and many of the tracks with vigorous vibrato and full bodied pizzicato, offering a commanding stage presence. Audiences familiar with the album knew what tracks were coming up, but even so, this song and many others carried with them an element of surprise as refreshing arrangements lifted the pieces off the album, elevating them into artful new creations. 

Ukuleles were an integral part of the show, championed by vocalist and ukuleleist Shirley Simms, who endowed songs like “A Pretty Girl is Like” and “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing” with an extra, up-close intimacy.  

Popular songs from the first half of the album such as “I Think I Need a New Heart” and “Book of Love” were sung with an undwindled earnestness and indefatigable sardonicism, revealing that even after 25 years the album’s wit and wisdom has not faded, but has blossomed even more. It’s the album that keeps on giving; not just for the audience, but for its creators, encouraging prodding, exploration, tinkering, and—as revealed by obvious fun they were having on stage (and the infectious smile donned by keyboardist Christopher Ewen the whole gig)—pure enjoyment. The cut off point for night one was the cinematic anthem “Promises of Eternity,” sung solo by guitarist Anthony Kaczynski as the rest of the band made their exits, leaving the audience amped up for night number two. 

Reno Dakota,” keyboardist and vocalist Claudia Gonson gave a shout out to those who were at the Somerville Theater 20 years ago when The Magnetic Fields did the same marathon performance of the album, and joked that some audience present at Roadrunner aren’t even 20 years old. Therein lies the reach of The Magnetic Fields and the power of 69 Love Songs, still being experienced by young and old(ish) as a tome to study, dip into, check in on, or, if you’re lucky, experience from start to finish—live.

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