Noise Pop 2010: Magnetic Fields & Mark Eitzel
Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt couldn't ask for a more fitting venue than The Fox Oakland Theater. A renovation of a 1920s Orientalist fantasy replete with stylized Hindu gods and gold leaf everything, The Fox is a vision of a world that's either gone forever, vanishing as we speak, or never even existed in the first place. It's the architectural equivalent of a Stephin Merritt love song, and the space contributed mightily to the night's quiet and supremely literary mood.
San Francisco hero Mark Eitzel got things started, baritone voice and dark lyrics evoking a stripped down late-60s Scott Walker. Alternately backed by keys and acoustic guitar, he sang about hesitation, loss, and doubt, referencing the gestures of girls in Cassavettes films and the time he had drinks at the top of the World Trade Center. Mark Eitzel makes music to sip whiskey to (one of his songs was called “Why I'm Bullshit”), and his laid-back presence was a natural complement to the understated Merritt.
The Magnetic Fields took the stage around 9, their lineup consisting of Merritt on vocals and ukelele, Claudia Gonson on vocals and keys, Sam Davol on cello, John Woo on guitar, Shirley Simms on what looked like an autoharp or a zither, Daniel Handler on accordion, and Johny Blood on brass. The set centered on their new album Realism, but featured pieces from as far as back as their 1991 debut Distant Plastic Trees (saving the venerated “100,000 Fireflies” for last). Highlights included an acoustic, Gonson-voiced rendition of “The Nun's Litany” from 2008's Distortion, an Appalachian-flavored take on 1994's “Fear of Trains”, and a darkly comic version of “The One You Really Love” from their fin de siècle masterwork 69 Love Songs. The band also covered several songs by Merritt side-project The 6ths, including the set-opening “Lindy Lou” and the bleak but crowd-pleasing “Falling Out of Love with You”.
Claudia Gonson did most of the talking between songs, a taciturn Merritt offering up occasional witticisms with an expert sense of timing. Their banter had a casual tone that was more kitchen table than concert hall, and the wry, sophisticated humor so central to Merritt's songwriting was on ready display.
All in all, the night had a pleasantly NPR-ish vibe, and one couldn't help but feel that this was a concert attended by people who were there to really listen. This year's Noise Pop Festival has been dominated by, well, noise-- so a bookish Saturday at The Fox Oakland hosted by rock's quintessential introspective formalist was a refreshing change of pace. It was as intimate as a theater full of 2,000 people can get, and a testament to the resolute power of poetry and musicianship to hush the gathered masses and send them home with something that lasts.
- Greg Korn