You’ve got to love the kind of concert where the band puts a bottle of whisky at the front of the stage for their sell-out audience to share. Now that’s what I call intimate.
What’s more, at around half past eight on Sunday evening, their special guest speaker told my daughter he’d wait until I got back from the toilet before he started. There’s service for you.
That was Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the revered screenwriter and children’s author, whose praise for The Magnetic North’s second album so impressed the band that they invited him along to kick off the proceedings in his home city.
A clearly-chuffed Frank gave us two readings from The Unforgotten Coat, his heart-warming 2012 tale of two Mongolian refugees in Bootle, and also shared evocative first-hand memories of leaving his Liverpool neighbourhood – ‘I honestly thought I was middle-class until I got to university’ – for a brand new home in Lancashire’s countryside.
In his case it was Prescot in the early ‘60s, while two decades later and around 10 miles further south in ‘Skem’, The Magnetic North’s multi-instrumentalist, guitar guru and elder statesman Simon Tong – best known for spells with The Verve and live with Blur and Gorillaz – had his own formative new town days.
Hence the wonderful Prospect of Skelmersdale LP, a collection of evocative story-songs relating to and inspired by Simon’s former home ground. And while there’s no doubt the local development corporation’s utopian idyll proved somewhat flawed, this album is no knocking project, with real love and nostalgia across its 12 tracks.
It wasn’t all London-based Simon’s work though. He despatched bandmates Erland Cooper and Hannah Peel to West Lancashire to see what they could unearth, the pair knocking on doors and meeting all manner of creatives and older residents as part of the writing process. The results are stunning, live and in the studio, as was the case for their debut long player, Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North, similarly inspired by a band member’s childhood – in that case, Erland’s.
Four of those Orcadian tributes were lovingly aired in the Central Library’s Picton Reading Room, a suitably-splendid setting (with great acoustics) for a compelling night, part of the Get it Loud in Libraries initiative which previously brought Frank Turner and Wolf Alice to the same impressive venue, and for whom this punter has previously enjoyed top nights at Lancaster Library featuring the likes of Robert Forster, The Thrills, Ian Broudie and James Walsh.
Simon, Erland and Hannah’s quality musicianship and songwriting were augmented by four more fine players (Eddie on drums, Jo on cello, Antonia on violin, and Guy on oboe and clarinets), while a backdrop of archive film clips and photographs was skilfully honed by Liverpool’s McCoy Wynne, setting the tone from the start. And the band played themselves in with Prospect’s opening three songs, neatly blended with documentary footage – Jai Guru Dev, Pennylands and A Death in the Woods all showcasing Erland and Hannah’s spot-on harmonies.
At that point, Erland thanked us for making it out on a wet, autumnal Sunday night, producing the afore-mentioned water of life in a successful bid to break the ice, insisting it was Orkney tradition that ‘where there’s no bar, bring whisky’. It worked, and by the time they’d finished the more laidback Betty Corrigall from the first LP and the catchy Signs from the second, the bottle was empty, something of an orderly queue having formed as someone dolled out tots into paper cups. ‘Seriously?’ asked Erland, taken aback but somewhat proud.
The brooding Hi Life followed from the Orkney album before relaxed Hannah’s cheery monologue about making the Prospect platter, leading to tongue-in-cheek grumpiness from Simon and a rather curt, ‘Hurry up’. Spoken interlude over, the talented Ms Peel launched into a poignant Little Jerusalem, the imagery behind so fitting, then the dreamy but celebratory Sandy Lane, the woodwind and string trio coming into their own.
Hannah also painted a vivid picture in describing her two naked bandmates braving the elements one wild day on Orkney, Simon again tight-lipped while Erland voiced his own version, involving his co-singer scotching on the deal, so to speak. An atmospheric blast through an ultimately-triumphant Bay of Skaill followed, while the strings helped intensify Prospect’s Remains of Elder.
That took us neatly on to a personal highpoint, Hannah displaying efficiency with a hand-crafted music box on finale Old Man of Hoy, another surging powerhouse and pure delight.
When Simon and Hannah returned, the latter reminisced about student days in Liverpool and a late-2001 candlelit city vigil commemorating George Harrison’s departure, inspiring her sweet arrangement of Run of the Mill from 1970’s All Things Must Pass. And then it was time to say goodbye, Erland leading us into the similarly-reflective, truly apt closer, Exit.