There was a scholar of ancient Scottish poetry, hipsters sporting beards and 60s glasses, some east London fringes, colourful tights, academics, a few older folk, and the Head Economist for the Office of Fair Trading (Amelia Fletcher). It had to be The Magnetic Fields at the Barbican in London. The rise of the ukulele’s hipster cachet has an awful lot to do with Stephin Merritt. Sure there have been other bands with ukuleles, perhaps they’ve sold more records but it all leads back to Stephin Merritt.
The Magnetic Fields are Stephin Merritt, but they’re also a band with an autoharp, cello, keyboard, acoustic guitar and, of course, a ukulele. At the Barbican, they played most of their new album, Realism, and then punctuated it with selections from their back-catalogue. Merritt is a prolific songwriter and it was nice to see them choose a few more esoteric songs. Xylophone, sounded wonderful, as did the 6ths songs, Looking for Love (In the Hall of Mirrors) which featured special guest Amelia Fletcher.
There have been critics of their latest album, Realism but live it makes sense. The arrangements on the record seem at times too clinical, which although might be the point, still detracts. In the Barbican the songs breathed. I Don’t Know What To Say and Always Already Gone, were particularly impressive. Of the older classics, The Nun’s Litany, from Distortion, and Shipwrecked, from the Gothic Archies Lemony Snicket album, were brilliant.
The encore involved early college radio hit 100,000 Fireflies and the finale, Papa Was a Rodeo. In an act of sheer underwhelming comic bravado, Merritt, stood up from his chair and stalked around the front stage. Swinging the microphone about, crooning, and enjoying himself. The band look nothing like a conventional pop group and all Merritt’s traits should mean he’s a rather dreary performer (in the traditional sense). But his finely timbered baritone, humour, and sure-handedness with a uke (he plays it exclusively, live) make him, and ultimately them, a strange, charismatic and very special group.