Saturday, March 20, 2010


Queueing to get into church? Doesn’t happen much these deeply secular days. But tonight a long line snaked around the outside of Manchester Cathedral waiting patiently in the rain to take a pew to see The Magnetic Fields.

This we were later informed by the friendly-but-formal introduction from the Verger (?) was only the second “contemporary popular music act” to perform in the Cathedral in its history which stretches back to 632AD (the first was Grizzly Bear). So a historic and reverential setting plus a sense of occasion greeted the packed audience once inside.

The Magnetic Fields seemed to sense this too: “We’ll try not to swear” promised keyboard player Claudia Gonson. The band were seated in a straight line: Stephin Merritt on ukulele on a high stool, Sam Davol on cello, John Woo on acoustic guitar, Claudia on vocals/keys/percussion and Shirley Simms autoharp/vocals. There was a precision to their arrangement that matched the setting. The audience was sat on chairs (not pews sadly) arranged in fan-shape in front of the band and slotted between enormous stone pillars, all beneath the high and cavernous vaulted roof. The audience’s quiet patience in waiting to enter the Cathedral turned now to a polite and hushed reverence.

The set was performed in two halves with a short interval. It started almost without me realising - I thought the band were still tuning up and they (gently) launched into ‘Kiss Me Like You Mean It’, Shirley’s countrified twang sounding great in the echoling space. I much prefer the acoustic chamber music end of the Magnetic Fields spectrum as opposed to the synth-pop one. And the former was delivered perfectly in such a grand but also intimate setting (although interestingly a song from ‘The Charm of the Highway Strip’ got one of the biggest cheers of the evening).

Across two hours the band played songs from (I’m fairly certain) every Magnetic Fields album plus songs from side-projects The Gothic Archies and The 6ths. The droll wit and clever wordplay of the songs really stood out particularly in The Nun’s Litany (drowned in distortion on record) and the rendition of The Gothic Archies (how appropriate) ‘Shipwrecked’. Plus in their occasional self-deprecating sarcasm (“this is another depressing song”).

The only downside was the echoing clatter of empty beer bottles on the marble floor often at the quietest moments (“Drinking in Church!?”). Other than that I thought this was a beautifully nuanced and magical performance in a special setting. I’m not sure all those attending would agree – I heard the odd mutter about ‘crap venue’; I’m not sure what sightlines were like if you were at the back or sides; and there was an odd system of having to leave the building to buy a token to return to exchange it for a beer or glass of wine (it was a Cathedral I suppose). Clearly the Cathdral is a building not regularly set up to host events like this but the above I thought were minor quibbles and I was more than happy to forgive them especially given how special the performance was.

The Set List

Kiss Me Like You Mean It
You Must Be Out Of Your Mind
The Luckiest Guy on The Whole East Side
Better Things
I Don’t Want To Get Over You
Acoustic Guitar
The Nun’s Litany
I Don’t Love You Anymore
I Don’t Know What To Say
Suddenly There Is A Tidal Wave
I’m Sorry I Love You


We’re All Having a Hootenanny Now
The Doll’s Tea Party
Wi' Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget
Always Already Gone
All The Umbrellas in London
The One You Really Love
The Flowers She Sent and the Flowers She Said She Sent
Night Falls Like A Grand Piano
Fear of Trains
Summer Lies
100,000 Fireflies
From A Sinking Boat
I’m Tongue Tied
Papa Was A Rodeo

The Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs [BUY]

The Magnetic Fields
Realism [BUY]


Andrea said...

I thought it was a beautiful venue,and a great night only spoiled by the clank of bottles!

The Archivist said...

Next time: carpet or plastic bottles please!