THE MAGNETIC NORTH
- FRANK COTTRELL-BOYCE
No matter how nice a music venue may be, as a punter there is always a feeling we’re treated as cattle, branded upon entry or tagged with a wristband, and counted in efficiently with a metal clicker. When women have bags searched and men are patted down, it’s like we’re returning to prison from day release. GetItLoudInLibraries gigs are less intense affairs, all giddy smiles from librarians and even the security stand down and relax a bit.
Not everyone gets it tonight though and when we go into the main room, and one bloke plonks himself down by the stage, and another announces he’s going down into the “mosh pit”. But there is no mosh pit, and neither is there a need to spread legs and grimace, lads. This is a library. It’s not how things are done here.
THE MAGNETIC NORTH rely heavily on a sense of place on their first two albums. The first, 2012’s Orkney: Symphony Of The Magnetic North, was inspired by the band’s singer Erland Cooper’s Orkney childhood upbringing. On the new record, The Prospect Of Skelmersdale, it is guitarist Simon Tong’s turn, an aural love letter to his hometown, one blighted by different bleakness, a place where 1960s town planners tried, and failed, to create a housing scheme for all.
From the get-go tonight Cooper offers us all whiskey, says the band will be offended if we don’t partake. Well, we don’t want to upset anyone… Singer and keyboard player Hannah Peel explains her reconnaissance mission to Skem with Cooper, taking notes, observing, filming, before going back to Simon Tong with their findings. Tong is silent on the matter tonight, maybe believing concept albums should speak for themselves.
The show opens with the opening songs from the Prospect Of Skelmersdale album, Jai Guru Dev, Pennylands and A Death In The Woods. The sobriety of the library suits them well, warmed and lifted tonight by cello, oboe, clarinet and violin, but we’re distracted from time to time by the screen on the wall behind the band, soft lens images and flickering short film clips of 1970s and 80s Skem, young boys with impish smiles and the more familiar photograph of the girl with the hen under her arm. We get songs from the Orkney record too, Peel playing the magical little music box on Old Man Of Hoy at the end. But it’s the sad sweet loneliness of Peel’s voice on Little Jerusalem that is the real treat, a true melancholic beauty.
Supporting Magnetic North tonight is FRANK COTTRELL-BOYCE, gifted a Skelmersdale upbringing himself. The author’s reading from his children’s books aren’t effective for us as adults but his essay on his affections for The Prospect Of Skelmersdale album and the place itself, the facts – or myths that have become facts, more like – on the new town, carries a real charm. He talks smilingly and romantically of Skelmersdale as a housing utopian dream, one crumbled.
Skem lacks the relative glamour of Liverpool. It’s an incomplete concrete jungle, and here tonight in the rather grand surroundings of our city’s brand new library, we’re reminded of that. Skelmersdale, the place we’re hearing songs and tales about, seems even more light years away.