Royal Festival Hall, 10/10/04
I feel at something of a disadvantage writing this after reading verlaine's review, but hey, we were sitting in different parts of the hall, so it's two different perspectives.
An anomaly among the large group of Magnetic Fields fans who coerced me (twisted my arm, oh yes) into another late night in London, I actually already owned an album by (The Real) Tuesday Weld (fear my obscure indie cred!), so I was looking forward to seeing how they translated to the stage. At first it seemed that I wasn't going to find out: instead of live music we were treated to the award-winning animated videos for Terminally Ambivalent Over You and Bathtime in Clerkenwell. I use the word "treated" without a trace of irony; I loved the quirky quick-fire monochrome metamorphoses of the animations (think Dr Seuss remixed by M. C. Escher). Windows-positive readers can watch the video of "Bathtime in Clerkenwell" and decide for themselves.
But when Stephen Coates took the stage, he took the stage, and the stage just loved it. Deliciously louche (addedentry was murmuring something slanderous about the lovechild of Neil Hannon and Jarvis Cocker, but I am not a gossip by nature so I closed my ears) and archly seductive, Coates and his minions provided a smooth slice of loungetastic Luciferiana which slips down very satisfyingly. Critics might say that they were a one-trick pony -- variations in style and pace between the songs are slight and subtle -- but if they are then it's a trick that works, and I'm happy to have it played on me.
As far as I was concerned by this point I had already justified the cost of my ticket; little did I know what further treat was in store for me. verlaine has already opined that the Magnetic Fields were not at their best on this occasion, but I'd never heard them before, live or otherwise -- so for me the musical experience had something of a "first date" feel about it. And on a first date you're often sufficiently starry-eyed about the whole thing to forgive a multitude of sins. (Or is that just me?)
Also, on a first date, you're hearing all those anecdotes for the first time; maybe they're not the best they've ever been told, but they're fresh and new and sparkling with promise. The stagecraft might have been awkward, and at times Merritt and Gonson bickered and bantered like an old married couple, but I found the awkwardness endearing. For me, it also served as a welcome change of pace and framing device for the sheer startling intensity of the songs; and such intensity! Every gem of beautifully-crafted bittersweet lyricism, every sudden and surprising metaphor, seemed like an unexpected and undeserved glimpse of perfection, seen out of the corner of my eye and disappearing as soon as it had made itself known, leaving me begging for more. From the heartstring-tugging simplicity of a single voice and a sparse accompaniment, to what felt like vast tidal waves of lushly-orchestrated tears, this was music that had me wrapped hopelessly around its little finger from the first note to the last dying fall.
I feel I should highlight some of the lighter moments, too, lest I give an impression of relentless emotional onslaught; for a start, I was probably the only person in the audience who didn't know all the punchlines to Yeah! Oh Yeah!, though judging by the audience reception it's obviously still funny the second time. Similarly, Reno Dakota made me laugh at the same time as I winced at its bitchiness. But really, the comic moments are inseparable from the tragic; even at their most intense and heartwrenching, the songs are constantly leavened by quirky imagery and wry, self-deprecating bathos. You have to laugh, even if you cry at the same time.
But ultimately the image that sums up the music in my mind is the view from the Royal Festival Hall balcony: another "first" for me, and while I felt like an uncultured country girl gaping at the Big City, I also felt as though this was what I'd just heard the soundtrack for: a thousand twinkling lights, spread out like a smorgasboard of hopes and dreams, loves and heartbreaks, each one reduced to an involuntary gasp of brightness. Standing there under "more stars than there are prostitutes in Thailand", I could feel strange powers work their magic on me.