Miracle Legion photo by Brendan Downes

Miracle Legion photo by Brendan Downes


Connecticut’s Miracle Legion became a fixture on the campus radio stations run by college and university students in North America during the 1980s. Since my teens in Manchester I’ve been retrospectively in love with their contemporaries from the ‘college rock’ days, bands like R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, The Replacements and Sonic Youth, but somehow I was never aware of Miracle Legion. Fast forward to this summer and local promoter Hey! Manchester, ever the purveyor of intriguing live music nights, has brought us the band’s unexpected return after a near 20-year hiatus.

These are the days of the comeback, it seems. In 2014 I saw Neutral Milk Hotel live in Manchester, twice, something I never even dreamed would happen in my lifetime. 2015 was the year I saw The Replacements, and again never in a million years did I think I’d live to have that experience. Similarly, I doubt that any of the fans here tonight at The Deaf Institute expected to see Miracle Legion in 2016. I actually haven’t yet decided where I stand on seeing reformed bands play live after a long layoff. Those bands I’ve just mentioned are my only such experiences, and although all three occasions were wonderful nights, friends have felt rather differently seeing other bands that have had many years away and then returned. I think you just have to take it on a case-by-case basis.

The floor is just about full on my arrival tonight, and the sight of a Miracle Legion drum kit confirms this to be a full-band show. I wasn’t sure that would be the case because recent promo slots on TV and online have featured only Mark Mulcahy and Ray Neal. The four-piece band that arrives on stage is the one that recorded the two most recent Miracle Legion albums, i.e. including the rhythm section of Dave McCaffrey (bass and occasional backing vocals) and Scott Boutier (drums). Mulcahy (lead vocals, frequent harmonica and occasional rhythm guitar) is an idol of Thom Yorke on account of his singing and songwriting abilities, and Neal (lead guitar), like Mulcahy, is a founding member and has recently described this comeback tour as unfinished business.

Hearing the first couple of songs, ‘Country Boy’ and ‘The Heart Is Attached’, both from the band’s Rough Trade days, it’s easy to see why early Miracle Legion drew comparisons with R.E.M., mostly due to Neal’s arpeggiated guitar style. Mulcahy, sporting an evening jacket, knee-length shorts and a magnificent silver beard, is lively and steely-eyed, always looking intensely at the crowd, breaking into a joyful jig every so often and sharing good bromance with Neal. That voice, so beloved of Yorke and others, is in fine form. To me it’s somewhere on the spectrum between Paul Westerberg and David Gray, with hints of Dave Pirner and Tim Booth.

By the 1990s the band had more in common sonically with the likes of The Afghan Whigs, American Music Club, Counting Crows and Soul Asylum, and Mulcahy straps on his acoustic guitar for the infectious pop of ‘Snacks and Candy’, from 1992’s Drenched, the lyrics of urban violence bouncing off his tongue. Next up is what has become probably my favourite Miracle Legion song in ‘Homer’, a lovely nostalgic piece about family and a baseball hero. I miss the gorgeous strings from the studio version, but the same can’t be said of ‘The Backyard’, which goes down a storm amongst the crowd and sounds even more anthemic in a live setting, the rousing chorus a celebration and romantic reminiscence of childhood: “The world was so big and I was so small. Your voice was always the loudest of all.” I think Mulcahy is a sensitive soul behind the slightly intimidating presence. It’s a sweet and affecting song.

Something I love about seeing gigs in Manchester and Salford is just how regularly bands, even those from overseas, are able to draw on something from their past that binds them to this area. For Miracle Legion it’s their cover from the Glad EP of John Cooper Clarke’s ‘A Heart Disease Called Love’, performed tonight as an encore. The brilliant wit and self-deprecation of the Bard of Salford’s lyrics fit the band rather well and provide an apt conclusion to a night that I’m sure has been an emotional one for long-time fans. For me as a newcomer, it has been a cracking introduction to the band’s music, but Miracle Legi0n has always been wrapped up in a melodic nostalgia right from its first EP, stirring up emotions that new fans as well as old fans take out with us onto the street as we leave The Deaf Institute.

(The reissue of Miracle Legion’s final LP Portrait Of A Damaged Family, which slipped largely under the radar at the time of its original release, is out now and deserving of attention.)

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.