“Country Boy,” the first song off Miracle Legion’s latest and probably last release, Annulment, starts with a single note from an electric guitar. It was recorded live in July 2016 at Codfish Hollow, a stage in Maquoketa, Ia., where Miracle Legion was on tour.
On the studio version of “Country Boy” — released in 1987 — that single note from the guitar is followed by a note from a harmonica and then a third note from a piano. Together they count off what the rhythm of the song would be. On the live 2016 recording, the only thing that follows that note for the rest of the measure is silence. The rhythm doesn’t need to be counted off anymore. It’s the guitarist, Ray Neal, who sets the pace, who decides how fast the song goes. Both band and longtime fans know where the beat is anyway.
Miracle Legion formed in New Haven in 1983 and scored a hit on college radio the next year with their first recording, the EP The Backyard. The band’s first full-length album, Surprise, Surprise, Surprise, was released on the famous indie record label Rough Trade in 1987. The group got a name for itself as a critical darling with devoted fans in the United States and United Kingdom. The band toured with the Sugarcubes (featuring a pre-solo-career Bjork) and released two more albums with Rough Trade. Then Rough Trade went bankrupt. Miracle Legion jumped labels to Morgan Creek. The band got on David Letterman’s show in 1992 and released the album Drenched.
Then, as the Guardian reported in a loving tribute to the band last year, Morgan Creek put the band in limbo. Miracle Legion got an offer to record music for the Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete and Pete. Neal was too disillusioned to sign on, but singer and songwriter Mark Mulcahy accepted, and he and Miracle Legion’s then-rhythm section — Dave McCaffrey and Scott Boutier — took the name Polaris and worked on the show until 1996, when the show was cancelled. In the same year, Morgan Creek let Miracle Legion go and the band put out a final album, Portrait of a Damaged Family, on Mulcahy’s own label, Mezzotint, before calling it a day.
In the 20 years since all that, Miracle Legion maintained a steady cult following, enough to trigger a reunion and a steady string of U.S. and U.K. tour dates. Annulment was recorded months into that. That night in Iowa found the band in top form, whether performing the earliest songs from its catalog (“The Backyard”) or from its final studio release (“Homer”). In every case, the rhythm on Annulment — supplied by McCaffrey and Boutier — breathes a little more than it did on the studio records, hitting harder and digging deeper, letting Neal relax and unfurl his guitar work. All this lets Mulcahy play with the timing of his knotty, emotional lyrics just that much more. As good as Miracle Legion was in the studio, Annulment shows that the group is even better live.
And New Haven will get one last chance to hear the band, as Miracle Legion is embarking on what the group says is its final string of dates. It doesn’t mean the end of music from Mulcahy, who is releasing a solo record at the end of this month (watch this space). But after shows in Philadelphia and New York City on April 20 and 21, respectively, Miracle Legion will take the stage at the Ballroom at The Outer Space on April 22. Two more dates will follow — April 28 in Los Angeles and April 29 in San Francisco. And then that, the band says, will be that. For longtime fans of the quartet, though, its brief reunion after so many years is perhaps miracle enough.