Published Mar 19, 2012The penetrating lyrics of Portland's Holcombe Waller were matched only by the ecstatic sonority of his voice. Performing his brand of contemplative baroque pop and indie folk with a violinist, cellist and multi-instrumentalist, who alternately provided piano, violin and guitar, Waller's pained and heartfelt voice blossomed like a mushroom cloud in slow motion. Among many stirring selections from his latest album Into the Dark Unknown, his cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Qu'Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan" sent waves of chills throughout the docile crowd hypnotized by his formidable talent.
Yet, for as moving as his music was, Waller had a laid-back, lighthearted demeanour that provided some levity and release for his otherwise enveloping sentiment. Noticing a similarity at the beginning of "I Can Feel It," Waller started into a live mash-up by singing Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" rather than his song, but only for the first verse. At one point, he brought up the house lights so he could take a picture of the crowd and, noticing the attractiveness of Vancouverites, commented that he would then be sure to hang around after his set, showing Waller to be a true charmer.
Where Waller offset the poignancy of his music with humorous banter, Stephin Merritt's Magnetic Fields mix the two in a bittersweet fashion, leaning more towards the sweet side with hints of darkness and self-consciousness. Most of the group's songs are about love, with their most renowned release 69 Love Songs containing just that, but their songs celebrate love in honesty, relishing all of its quirkiness and euphoria in equal parts. The Magnetic Fields' set oozed this candour and tongue-in-cheek humour, with ace acoustic guitar, cello, piano, ukulele and principal songwriter Merritt playing melodica and harmonium.
Although highly skilled, the Magnetic Fields weren't perfect, but one could palpably sense the love in their performance, despite or because of its imperfections. Merritt, with his casually booming baritone, was in top form, recounting Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919 as a metaphor for how slow their song "Time Enough for Rocking When We're Old" is, and commenting on the venue's problem with "horrible crickets" when the crowd got chatty. Pianist Claudia Gonson was in "half-voice mode" as she admittedly ailed from laryngitis post-SXSW, crediting a stagehand for bringing out hot water with honey in the nick of time. But aside from her nasally stage banter, it only noticeably affected their version of "You Must Be Out of Your Mind," usually sung live by Gonson solo but with Merritt lending his voice for this rendition.
Although the set list drew from selections across the Magnetic Fields' catalogue, it was a treat to hear pared-down renditions of material from their most recent album Love at the Bottom of the Sea. The sound of the five-piece live band was far more spacious and open, yet lush. With Merritt only sparingly playing a synth, the strength and naked truth of songs like "Quick!," "My Husband's Pied-à-Terre," and lead single "Andrew in Drag" came across clearly out from under the overly glossy production that dominated the album. Less was significantly more this evening.