Live Review: Stephin Merritt with Calvin Johnson at Benaroya Hall 5/13/15

Stephin Merritt

all photos by Brady Harvey (view set)

There are very few artists who can pull off what Stephin Merritt did this night at Benaroya Hall: a 26-song set with the song titles performed alphabetically, from A (“Andrew in Drag”) to Z (“Zombie Boy”). Songs were culled from his extensive catalog of not only his most well-known project, The Magnetic Fields, but also The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, and The Gothic Archies.

Opening the show was local legend Calvin Johnson, no stranger to multiple projects himself. Johnson’s set bounced around from his solo work (“Angels Can Be So Cruel”) to some Hive Dwellers songs (“Streets of Olympia Town,” “Messed Up and Ramblin”) and even a Selector Dub Narcotic number. He tried to explain his different aliases to the audience. “You’ve heard of Clark Kent, right?” he deadpanned, whipping off his own dark-framed eyeglasses. He then began an acapella rap, which included my new favorite line, “I’m the kinda guy who says, who let the dogs back in?”

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Decked out in a pink button-down shirt tucked into jeans, Johnson paced the stage like a panther. With an acoustic guitar slung around his neck, he would pluck a simple rhythm while striking a pose and staring down the audience. He didn’t even use a microphone, he just let his distinctive baritone boom across the room. In between songs, he was cracking up the audience, explaining the premise of Stephin’s show (“He’ll be playing 26 songs, using the exact same alphabet he used to write those songs!”).

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When Stephin Merritt took the stage (accompanied by long-time Magnetic Fields cellist Sam Davol), he quipped, “There will be no stage banter since Calvin said everything I wanted to say.” The gentlemen sat with Stephin on a high stool, and a metronome between them. While the band’s recorded catalog has spanned from synthpop to guitar-fuzz to chamber-pop, on this night, they translated each song using only cello and ukelele. You would think that after a while, all the songs would start to sound the same, but instead, it highlighted what terrific musicians these boys are, to create such variety with just those two instruments. Sam’s cello playing alternated from long, elegant strokes to playful plucking of melody lines. I started to wish I knew how to play ukelele. It was absolutely enchanting. As a long-time fan, I loved getting to hear 20-year-old songs like “Josephine” and “100,000 Fireflies” (yes!) in a whole new way.

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In the stripped-down setting, Stephin’s infamously sharp lyrics were even more punctuated: the audience cracked up during “I Wish I Had an Evil Twin” and “The Nun’s Litany.” He introduced a song by explaining that he doesn’t own a television, but he’s not immune to its powers. If a TV happens to be on in a bar, it does draw him in. And, on one day, he happened to catch an episode of Oprah (“The star of The Color Purple!” he exclaimed), and her guest was relating how she didn’t know about her husband’s secret apartment. With that, he launched into “My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre” off 2012’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea.

But, it was not just the snark. Even the poignancy and beauty of his songs was heightened in this acoustic setting. A surprise performance of “Give Me Back My Dreams” (originally sung by Mekons frontwoman Sally Timms on The 6ths album Hyacinths and Thistles) was truly breathtaking. I will even confess to getting teary-eyed during a performance of “The Ugly Little Duck,” originally written for a 2005 musical-theatre piece titled My Life as a Fairy Tale. (In my defense, I really like ducks.)

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Will Stephin ever repeat this premise of performing songs from A-Z, or will he be so sick of “Zombie Boy” by the end of the tour, that it’ll never appear on traditional set lists from now on? Time will tell. But, what a fantastic evening of music. I easily could’ve stayed for 26 songs more.

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