Live Review: Down to basics, Stephin Merritt crafts an alphabetical spell at the Sinclair

Going to a Stephin Merritt show is a bit of a pilgrimage for anyone who loves the idea of ye olde fashioned song; the perfect ideal of words married to melody, filled with cleverness, craft and a narrative with no cliché left un-perverted.

This was a ritual experienced by many Tuesday night (June 9) at the Sinclair in Cambridge, where Merritt and Magnetic Fields member Sam Davol whittled Merritt’s distinguished catalog down to just Davol’s cello and Merritt’s ukulele and little-boy baseball cap. It was a minimal stage production that resignedly stated NO NONSENSE — JUST THE MUSIC (and a demonstration of just what a great folk/rock/pop/standards string player Merritt really is). And the singer’s mood would have been just as spartan had he not been loosened up by the wonderful performance from Boston songwriter ACLU Benefit, a half-performance artist/half-singer-songwriter, also a baritone, with a moniker designed to draw ironic legal concern from the great civil liberties organization.

Although Merritt’s mischief was not obvious at first (“unless you’re an Aspie” — Merritt’s words, and playful ones, in possible reference to his opener, who performs in a troupe called Aspergers Are Us), the theme of the program was songs played in alphabetical order; one song for each letter A-Z. Merritt and Davol began with “Andrew in Drag” (officially a classic) and ended with another more recent Magnetic Fields cut, “Zombie Boy.” In between those two came a QVC telethon of gems, such as 69 Love Songs standouts “Love is Like a Bottle of Gin” (Letter L) and “A Chicken with its Head Cut Off” (Letter C), a song containing one of the all-time greatest, everybody-wait-for-it lyrics (and don’t you know Merritt knows it): “We don’t have to be stars exploding in the night, or electric eels under the covers/We don’t have to be anything quite so unreal, let’s just be lovers.” Forgiving words for a mixed-age crowd.

Merritt also dusted off some other unexpected surprises, such as Letter J’s “Josephine” (from the Magnetic Fields’ first album, 1991’s Distant Plastic Trees), Letter D’s “The Dead Only Quickly” (from the long-ago Gothic Archies side-project), and Letter F’s “Forever and a Day,” a perfectly balanced, oh-so-lovely ballad pulled from a musical project Merritt has been working on for the past decade with Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler.

With a dash of pomposity that was mostly masked by a department store spritzing of dry black humor, Merritt seemed genuinely entranced at times by the beauty of his own music. It is perhaps the ultimate bond he shares with his audience. For while he might sooner die than say something like “how’s everybody doing tonight?” he did seem to commune with the audience as he got lost in the splendor of his best melodies, such as the chorus of Letter B’s “Book of Love,” where many an audience member closed their eyes and lost themselves in the swaying of his lullaby and maybe their own memories.

Merritt barely tolerates performing, but he moves us none the less. At one point in time, an audience member tried to actually ask about merchandise in between songs. “I think the audience is trying to communicate with us,” said Merritt to Davol, with trade mark drollness and nary a look toward the lights. In response, Davol’s tacitly raised eyebrow really said all that needed to be said.

ACLU Benefit’s performance really was something to witness, too, and woe to the sad ticket-holder who decided to stroll in late and skip his set. Best known for his audience participation numbers about the most basic and elemental truths to life, where he really manages to get even the shyest of wallflowers to sing along by convincing them how damned good they sound (and you can tell he feels it), it was fun to see ACLU work his magic on the Sinclair’s large crowd. Tuesday’s 400-person-strong sing-alongs—with lines such as “Who you gonna ride with now that I am gone?” (from “ Riding”) and “love of my life, I’ll never get over you” (from “Love of My Life”), revealed their profundity as they repeated and echoed around the room from the mouths of strangers.

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The singer then rebuffed his own melancholy mood with a sharp dose of absurd comedy that struck a positive chord with the charmed crowd. He explained that his merch contained Magic the Gathering Cards, Stephin Merritt CDs (since Merritt wasn’t selling any), post cards reading “Fuck the USPS,” and custom made t-shirts reading “Ask Me About My Fear of Strangers.” While this in-between song banter was funny, it was also true — and judging by the line of new fans at his table after the show, it seems as though Mr. Benefit raised more than a few ducats for his legal defense fund.

The sad reflections turned themselves inside out with “Country Suicide,” which the singer explained as more of a song about all of the obnoxious things you could do that would actually be preferable to death. “There’s so much you can do when you’re not worried about losing,” he sang with a sentiment not much different than Merritt’s own “If I Had an Evil Twin” (Letter I, for the record). “Like insult people a lot more or take things from the corner store, or pee in my hallway.” Then by an act of God, the singer named ACLU Benefit brought Merritt onto the stage to perform a ukulele and guitar duet of Beat Happening’s “Bad Seeds,” complete with awkward dancing.

When I asked him how in the hell he made that happen, he responded “I emailed him.” Because, if we’re all going to go anyway, why not casually ask your heroes to perform onstage with you?

Follow Jonathan Donaldson on Twitter @JR_Donaldson