On Monday, April 9th, Devotchka and The Magnetic Fields played to a sold out crowd at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. Many in attendance had previously seen Devotchka headline their own show at the club back in March 2011 and (rightfully so) were coming back for seconds. That 2011 show was epic and jam packed with excellent musicianship, visuals, and even dancers descending from the ceiling Cirque de Solei- style. On this current tour, however, Devotchka has clearly acquiesced to the austerity of the headlining Magnetic Fields.
Devotchka played as a trio on Monday night, which meant that they would be missing dynamic sousaphonist Jeanie Schroder. There was none of the fanfare the former burlesque-backing band is known for incorporating into their shows, but it didn’t matter. The lack of visual distraction allowed the band to show off their talent, and frontman Nick Urata did just that, stunning the audience with his velvet singing voice and whistling prowess. Performing on a practically barren stage and with minimal lighting, the trio only had time to work through about 10 songs, but when those songs happen to be “hits” like “We’re Leaving”, “You Love Me” and “The Enemy Guns” off of 2004’s How It Ends, and “The Clockwise Witness” from 2008’s A Mad and Faithful Telling, there was hardly room to complain about the brevity of the set.
The Magnetic Fields took the stage shortly after Devotchka closed, but were a few minutes late for their established 9:15 set time—a fact Stephin Merritt, Magnetic Fields frontman and well-known curmudgeon, later lamented, reminding the audience that this was no rock and roll show. On stage with Merritt was Claudia Gonson on piano and vocals, Sam Davol on cello, John Woo on guitar, and Shirley Simms on vocals and 8-string ukulele parts that had previously been played by Merritt. Merritt played the harmonium, and Gonson, in what seemed an obvious attempt to flatter and placate an ornery Merritt, predicted that following the tour there would be a rash of harmonium-fronted bands, insinuating that ukulele-fronted bands can be attributed to his playing the instrument.
The show opened with “I Die,” and “Chicken with its Head Cut Off,” giving Merritt a chance to show off his deep base voice before turning vocals over to Shirley Simms for “Your Girlfriend’s Face.” The dark, dry humor of lyrics off the band’s new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, was made more transparent in a live setting stripped of the synthesizers present on recordings. The crowd laughed as Merritt, Gonson, and Simms delivered deadpan lines such as, “Some plastic surgeon's done horrible things to poor Jane/Making her terrifically popular, men are insane.” Their wit pervaded the between-song commentary as well, Gonson responding to a request for “Kiss Me Like You Mean It,” by answering flippantly, “That’s okay.”
Fans of the band’s older work were rewarded with tracks such as “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “Reno Dakota,” “Grand Canyon,” and several others off of 69 Love Songs, “Swinging London,” off of Holiday, “It’s Only Time” off of i, and “Drive on Driver” off of Distortion. The gem of the set was “Plant White Roses,” a beautiful duet sung by Simms and Gonson. Most were unfamiliar with this track because as Gonson explained, it’s off an album called Obscurities, an album Merge Records “put out somewhat obscurely last year.”
Merritt did not disappoint those who’d heard of his reputation to be a bit prickly. When he stumbled over lyrics at the end of “Andrew in Drag,” he threw over his music stand. At first, it wasn’t clear whether he was being funny or if he was truly angry, but when Gonson asked somewhat tremulously, “Going off book, Stephin?” it rang uncomfortably of a long-abused spouse afraid to misstep. He replied with annoyance, “I can’t see the fucking book,” so Gonson called for more lights as he implored her to just start the next song. Merrit’s irritability remained through the duration of the show as he told fans calling out requests that “comment is not necessary” and sang fan-favorite “Book of Love” with his hands resting on his head, appearing bored by having to play his own song.
While the setlist drew from albums spanning the band’s career, it has remained very static from city to city, disallowing the opportunity to hear songs like “Washington DC” on location (although if you see the band in San Francisco or Berkeley, you’re likely to get a shout out). The show ended at the same energy level it came in on. But fans of The Magnetic Fields didn’t come to hear a rock show—they came to hear Merritt’s base voice, intricate instrumentation, and devastating lyrics—and they got just that.