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Noise Pop Diary, Part 1: Magnetic Fields and Mountain Goats

Last weekend, San Francisco was thoroughly rocked by the 16th installment of the Noise Pop music festival. For six nights, local favorites played alongside national stars at some of the city's greatest music venues. I had the pleasure of attending four of this year's Noise Pop shows, and today and tomorrow, I'll be letting you in on my Noise Pop diary. Up today: The Magnetic Fields and The Mountain Goats.


The Magnetic Fields, 2/28, Herbst Theatre — When you have as many songs as the Magnetic Fields do, and as many projects as singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt (pictured at right) has, I imagine picking setlists for shows is close to torture. But the Fields managed to cram an incredible range of songs into their Thursday set, drawing from albums old and new, with a sprinkling of music from side projects The Sixths and the Gothic Archies along the way.

Though known for their synth-y sound — and, as of late, guitar fuzz on top of everything — the group plays acoustic live, owing in part to Merritt's hearing condition that makes certain noises unbearable. Merritt sat far off on one side of the stage, cradling his bouzouki and leaving most of the talking to singer Claudia Gonson, who introduced the songs in between telling stories about having her pants stolen at a local laundromat. From time to time, Merritt would chime in with a snide remark or sarcastic comeback; the overall effect was that of an elderly couple bickering over the morning paper — and a surprising amount like what I imagine life with Stephin Meritt would be like. Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, chimed in with the accordion on a few songs.

Highlights from the set included a moving version of "Book of Love" from 69 Love Songs, the spirited "Too Drunk to Dream" from Distortion, and a rocking rendition of "I Don't Believe You" from I. For me, though, the show's greatest benefit was getting to hear the Distortion songs stripped of their, well, distortion. Though I like the album as it is, hearing pure, acoustic versions of the songs let me appreciate what I really love about the Fields: their smart and clever lyrics.

Up next: The Mountain Goats, so read more.
The Mountain Goats, 2/29, Bimbo's 365 Club — As good as the Mountain Goats are on record, I've always thought of them more as a live band. There's nothing quite like seeing the emotion singer/songwriter John Darnielle puts into every word out of his mouth, sometimes even turning away from the microphone in the middle of a song to unleash a primal scream. The best Mountain Goats shows I've seen in my life have been the rowdiest, with the crowd hooting and hollering and buying Darnielle and bassist Peter Hughes shots of whatever they'd like to drink and egging them on to the point that they cover Ace of Base's "The Sign"; Friday's show wasn't like that. But the relatively staid atmosphere didn't keep Darnielle from getting into it, engaging the crowd in sing-alongs and slapping the hands of the fans at the front of the stage.


As a fan from the Goats' olden days of songs recorded directly into a tape recorder in Darnielle's living room, I'm still getting used to the fact that they've added a drummer; time was that if they wanted to play one of their few songs that required percussion, they had to drag the opening band's drummer back on stage. But for the first time, I realized that some of the songs from the Goats' Heretic Pride, their newest album, actually sound better with more instruments. Instead of longing, just a little, for the days of just Darnielle on stage, I actually wished their pianist and violinist had been on tour to give some of the new songs their full, rich arrangements.

Highlights included fan favorite "Going to Georgia" (prompted by Darnielle's inability to remember one of the new songs), "You or Your Memory" from 2005's The Sunset Tree, and an extended period of quiet time where Darnielle — just him and his guitar — played songs from his back catalog, outdoing himself each time with the intro: "Really, almost nobody knows this one."

Up tomorrow: Tilly and the Wall and She & Him

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