The Magnetic North perform songs about Skem and the Orkneys and Getintothis’ Rick Leach is lost in the magic of it all.
It was always going to more than just an ordinary gig. The Magnetic North, having crafted what is possibly the finest album of 2016, The Prospect of Skelmersdale, the follow-up to their 2012 debut, Orkney, Symphony of The Magnetic North, were in town to play at the Central Library.
It all seemed a touch disrespectful to call it a gig. Maybe not so much as disrespectful, but inappropriate. What do you call a musical event in a library? A concert? A show? A recital? A happening? A reading? It’s hard to say.
Maybe a new word should be coined-after all, this gig by The Magnetic North was one of a number of live events taking place in libraries across the North West and beyond, with Get It Loud in Libraries having lined up both Amanda Palmer and Anna Meredith to play at the Central Library in October, plus acts such as Cate Le Bon and Meilyr Jones performing in Kendal, and We Are Scientists in Barrow.
But performing in unusual settings is nothing new to The Magnetic North, even if it was unusual for most of us who’d turned up to this long time sold out show. (We’ll have to call it a show for now.) Erland Cooper, Simon Tong and Hannah Peel, the trio who comprise the band, are veterans of playing shows in different venues to the norm, having very recently played a show at the grand surroundings of the Royal Institute of British Architects in London.
So this was going to be as far away from any tired old ‘rock and roll’ cliche as you could imagine.
And it was different.
We queued up to have our hands marked with a library stamp as we entered the superbly refurbished Central Library. Would we get fined for not bringing our arms back in time? We wandered down to where the recital was due to take place, a small stage set up in a round room with children’s picture books at hand in racks and ranks of library computers curving around a balcony. ‘Where’s the bar?’ and ‘Can we get a drink?’ seemed to be a common refrain but this wasn’t a normal gig and it didn’t matter. The strongest thing on offer – in fact the only thing on offer – was coffee. After that initial shock; like being transported back to a Sunday in Wales in the 1960’s when strict Methodism held sway, everybody seemed quite relaxed about having a double espresso. After all, we were there for something special.
No support band. No four piece bunch of chancers there to make up the numbers with the no-one really paying any interest save for their family and friends.
No, tonight we were treated to a selection of readings by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, acclaimed screenwriter, award winning author of children’s books and writer for the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony. And like all of us there, he’s a massive fan of The Magnetic North.
Sandwiched between two short readings from one of his books, he read his review of The Prospect of Skelmersdale album, a record which he told us that he loved. But this wasn’t an ordinary review; a track-by-track account of the album. He spoke of moving from Bootle to Prescot as a young child, moving to a new house, the sense of home, new towns, how it feels to be disconnected, myths around Skelmersdale, the building of Utopias, the failure of Utopias, and the need to dream of Utopia.
He spoke of the inarguable right for everybody to have somewhere that they could call ‘home’ and that if he as a child found it shatteringly different being wrenched from Bootle to Prescot, a distance of a few miles, then in 2016, how harder must it be for a child from Aleppo? And, as a mark of his storytelling prowess, he let that sink in with us for a beat. You could have heard a pin drop.
And he spoke he made us think of time and memory and memory and time.
Because that’s what music is all about really and that’s what music is for. Memory and time. Remembering.
That is what The Magnetic North are all about.
Memories, those distant thoughts and things buried deep and forgotten, swirling around at random, bringing things back, one note at a time, one sequence of notes, one chord change, one wistful turn of phrase. They all come flooding back in both of their albums. It really doesn’t matter if you’ve never been to the Orkneys or driven around the endless (mythical) roundabouts of Skem, The Magnetic North bring back sun-dappled days of late summer, long school holidays that stretch out forever, scabs on knees and all those clichéd truths. They also speak of hopes and dreams, fears and loss, futures and pasts. They speak of universal things.
We knew they could do this from the albums. The question was, if they could translate it into a live setting? In a library?
There was a very short break.
And then we knew. Then we really knew.
Lights dimmed. Stills and film clips of Skelmersdale were projected to the back of the stage and the three of them, accompanied for the night with the addition of a drummer, cello, violinist and oboe, walked onto the stage and for the best part of ninety minutes or so, kept us all entranced.
We’ve all been at gigs where although it’s okay and we’ve enjoyed it, you find yourself looking at your watch, just wondering how long is left. It can turn out pretty well, but you do get those odd spells, those odd moments when you wish it would be all over. An hour standing watching someone strum at a guitar can feel like an hour. And to be honest, most gigs are like that, aren’t they?
It’s rare to be at a gig where if time doesn’t exactly drag, then it doesn’t fly by.
But for the The Magnetic North at the Central Library that Sunday evening, time was a fluid concept. Those ninety minutes sped by like a hazy dream. You’ve been asleep for a matter of minutes but dream for hours. They transported us to a different world. Back to Skelmersdale, back thirty years ago.
They opened with three tracks from the Skem album, Hannah Peel’s floating and crystalline voice, so clear it was like the freshest mountain spring water balanced perfectly with Simon Tong’s burbling and ever-twisting guitar work underpinned with Erland Cooper’s bass and Orcadian vocals. In this setting the songs were more heavy than on record. Not heavy in a Black Sabbath sense of the word, just less ethereal; more real. They spoke to us of a world where everything was new and freshly painted, new and hopeful, where people smiled and children grinned and the myth of Skem being a dump was just that; a myth. They dealt with memory and time and memories, real and imagined.
There were just over two hundred people in the audience for this sold-out performance but three songs in we all knew we were watching something special.
So special in fact that when Cooper brought a bottle of whisky to the stage and a bunch of paper cups and invited anyone who wanted to have a drink to help themselves, in ‘an Orcadian tradition’, we all seemed slightly nonplussed. ‘Come on,’ he laughed, ‘Is no-one going to have a drink?’ It took one brave soul to step forward and pour a dram, like a nervous deer drinking from a pool in some sort of nature documentary, before others joined in. It was okay. And all the while, The Magnetic North spun their magic.
They played a few of the songs from the Orkney album – Bay of Skaill and Betty Corrigal – and although the Skem stills played behind throughout, these tracks didn’t seem out of place at all. It was like a counterpoint; the mythical bleakness of the Orkneys balanced with the mythical bleakness of the new town.
It’s important to note that the three of them complement each other so well not just musically but as people. Cooper is bouncy and effusive throughout, at times swinging his bass around as if he really wants to rock, Peel is chatty and happy and you get the feeling that she wants to talk between every song while Tong is quiet and reserved, focused on his guitar, with odd nods to the other two.
This ideal match comes together in the most beautiful way in Little Jerusalem, a track from the Skem album. This was the highlight for us even though we were so lost in it all that it’s difficult to recall if it happened at the beginning if the set, half way through or near the end. A highlight of highlights.
Imagine if you will the best Brian Wilson track ever, the best song that Brian Wilson never wrote, the song that Brian Wilson would have written if he’d spent a summer in West Lancashire watching concrete being poured and endless ribbons of tarmac being laid down instead of cruising the Pacific Coast Highway. That’s what you’d have got with Little Jerusalem. A song that Brian Wilson would be proud of.
And hearing it live, with those vocals, those strings, that guitar…well, there are some songs that give you goosebumps or a lump to the throat or a tear to the eye or make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Little Jerusalem and The Magnetic North did all of that. All of it.
This was the point where we knew. It was not an ordinary gig. The Magnetic North are not an ordinary band.
Memories are made of this. This was magical. This was special.
Pictures by Getintothis’ John Johnson