For many of my generation and younger, New Haven, CT natives Miracle Legion remain relatively unknown, despite their impact on the broader music community. Thom Yorke of Radiohead remarked on how frontman Mark Mulcahy’s voice, “changed the way I thought about songs and singing”. When Mulcahy tragically lost his wife in 2008 leaving him a single parent to care for his twin daughters, the very same musicians who loved and respected his music came to his aid the best way they knew how. Dinosaur Jr., Michael Stipe, The National, Vic Chesnutt, Juliana Hatfield, and oh yeah Thom Yorke came together to record the songs of Miracle Legion and Mark Mulcahy and released Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy. It’s been almost a decade since the aforementioned tragic event and twice that since the last proper Miracle Legion album, Portrait of a Damaged Family, was released. Now in 2016, the music world has been granted the gift of a reformed Miracle Legion and a U.S. tour celebrating the re-release of their final album.
On July 12th a lineup of Mark Mulcahy, Mr. Ray Neal, Scott Boutier, and Dave McCaffrey returned home to New Haven, CT to open for legendary Guided By Voices. Not surprisingly, I came to find out that Bob Pollard is also a huge fan of Miracle Legion. Unlike most opening bands Miracle Legion was playing in front of a sizable early arriving crowd, many of whom were there for one reason. The foursome took to the stage with youth and vigor opening with “Sooner” from their 1992 release Drenched. Despite the unfortunate history and depressing baggage associated with this album (see Morgan Creek Records) it felt almost as if opening with a track from this lost album was a way of saying “we’re back!” Fans, young and old, sang along with Miracle Legion favorites like the jaunty foot stomper “Even Better”, the cautious tale of “Out to Play,” and the lamenting and reflexive “Gone to Bed at 21”. The auspicious nature of Miracle Legion’s first show back home in New Haven was somewhat deflated by the fact that they were treated like any other opening act and given the token 40-45 minutes to perform, not nearly enough for the hundreds of fans and certainly not long enough for the man with the mic. Mulcahy got the universal sign for one last song from off stage left and asked incredulously “Really? That’s it?” In his own way he tried to put a positive spin on the situation by saying “Well I guess 5 minutes is still 5 minutes.” After some consultation with Ray and the others they launched into their last song of the evening, “Storyteller” off of their 1987 album Surprise, Surprise, Surprise. Despite the short set it was wonderful to see the band back together again, and for me personally, seeing them live for the first time period. Still, I wanted more and I was sure to get just that less than a week later in Hamden, CT, a suburb of New Haven.
On July 16th, after shows in Providence, Albany, and Brooklyn, the hometown heroes returned, this time to a frenzied sold out crowd at The Ballroom at The Outer Space. It was an entirely different feel from the get go. Unlike the larger College Street Music Hall, The Ballroom’s capacity is a tenth the size and as such the hot and sweaty bodies were packed shoulder to shoulder, politely stealing spots when they opened up in order to get as close to the action as possible. The anticipation and excitement was indeed tactile.
Mulcahy, nowadays sporting a beard that can only be described as “impressive,” took to the stage with his compadres who wasted no time with nostalgic ramblings and launched into a staggering version of “Country Boy”. I can still hear Mulcahy’s voice echoing in my head: “I’m not ready, I’m not ready to go!” Hit after hit followed, again with little banter between songs. From slowed down introspective classics like “And Then?” to the more upbeat and poppy “The Backyard” Miracle Legion were in rare form. Mulcahy grew particularly playful as the night went on, pouring water down the back of an unsuspecting Mr. Ray and then dousing the first few rows with another bottle. After an hour plus of quintessential cuts the band graciously waved thank you to the clamoring capacity crowd and exited stage left. After an impressively loud and consistent roaring of applause the band returned not once but twice for their curtain calls. The first encore featured two of my favorite songs from 1989’s Me and Mr. Ray: “You’re the One Lee” followed by “The Ladies From Town.” They ended the evening with the frenetically paced “Snacks and Candy” sending us all how singing in our cars:
‘Cause we’re going down, down, down
To snacks and candy going down, down, down, down
We’re going down
To Snacks and Candy going down
If you’ve never heard of this band that everyone seems to be talking about lately or you gave them a cursory listen and weren’t impressed, I understand. In fact, I will be the first to admit that the first time I heard Miracle Legion I felt a bit underwhelmed by their overall sound, it seemed a bit too simple. However, when I returned to their records some time later I felt as though I was hearing something completely different, simple yes, but in the way that one’s raw emotions are simple at first expression. The intuitive process of hearing is far less engaged and sophisticated then the act of listening and feeling. In order to truly get to the heart of Miracle Legion’s music, you need time to listen and feel. Are you up for it? For your sake, I hope so. Some of you still have time to catch them live as their tour will continue in Northampton, MA and then to the midwest before heading overseas to the UK.
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Setlist from College Street Music Hall – New Haven, CT – July 12, 2016
Snacks and Candy
Gone to Bed at 21
Out to Play
Setlist from The Ballroom at the Outer Space – Hamden, CT – July 16, 2016
A Heart Disease Called Love
Out to Play
Old and New
Accidentally on Purpose
Everything is Rosy
Will You Wait
All for the Best
Closer to the Wall
You’re the One Lee
The Ladies From Town
Snacks and Candy