The final contemporary music event of the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival finds Stephin Merritt & The Magnetic Fields performing their 50 Song Memoir album over the course of two nights at the King's Theatre.
The theatre auditorium’s not the biggest of those that Edinburgh has to offer but nor is it one you could describe as small; yet with Merritt positioned centre front of the stage, surrounded by instruments and personal items & with the band members enclosing him at the back & sides, he was able to seemingly address each member of the audience in person, making each show a surprisingly intimate event.
Well known for his droll wit, Merritt is on excellent form in between the songs cataloguing his life up to 2015, with tales of his itinerant upbringing (33 different residences in the first 23 years) and familial anecdotes not already covered in such songs as ‘A Cat Called Dionysus’ and ‘My Mama Ain’t’. Either tangentially or directly The Vietnam War, Reaganomics, AIDS and the other major events of the period 1966-2015 are dealt with as the show progresses, sometimes whimsically and sometimes grimly thought provoking but always with great chutzpah and his expressive tones.
Most of the songs have a visual element projected onto a large screen directly over Merritt’s head and these films and cartoons are often very absorbing in their own right. Ranging from the Pythonesque to manipulated medical footage via straightforward animation these serve to visually amplify much of the imagery conjured up to illustrate the singer’s life to date. Or, in the case of the footage from the 1916 silent film version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, his attempts at writing the odd musical or two (something actually achieved with Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).
Night two of the show is somewhat less euphoric than the first though that’s only to be expected as it contains the songs covering the ‘80s and the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic. Still his dry humour drives things along and the amount of love in the room for the 50+ man on the stage, sat in an approximation of one of the tin dollhouses he collects, is unremitting and the openness about his existence over this Friday and Saturday is appreciated with a standing ovation for him and his players.