The Magnetic Fields (Mostly) Unplugged

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I caught the first night of the Magnetic Fields' two-night stand at the Harris Theater, the first time I've seen them live, and I can't recommend going tonight highly enough. They're touring in support of the new "folk" album Realism, with a "folk" lineup - since it's the Magnetic Fields, there was a lot of self-deprecating air-quotes stage banter. Their wryly unserious self-description aside, however, it is an outstanding lineup: autoharp (!), keybs (set to vibe), acoustic guitar, viola da gamba (pretty sure), and Stephin Merritt on rhythm ukulele.

As such I expected the set to be heavy on the new album, but Merritt & Co. played a long, career-spanning set, featuring (I think I'm right about this) one, usually two songs from every LP and even songs from the 6ths' catalog. It's an unlikely lineup to play some of the earlier songs - Wayward Bus in particular has a sort of toy-store wall-of-sound busyness that owes a lot to Pet Sounds - but the arrangements were thoughtful and inventive, particularly in the interplay between the extraordinary Sam Davol on viola da gamba (if you've heard i, my favorite Fields album, you'll have a sense of how well the instrument is used) and Steve Koo John Woo on guitar. Merritt's singular voice is in fine form, a warm baritone that makes the more bitter lyrics go down easy.

Claudia Gonson (keyboards, vocals, group manager, co-bandleader, lead banter) promised a completely different set list tonight, so I can't tell you what to look for specifically, but I can highly recommend going.

7:30 PM, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph, 312-334-7777 or 773-728-6000, $30-$35.

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