IRL: Neutral Milk Hotel, Jan. 17 2014
At The Daily Soundtrack, we are all music lovers. We’re not here to promote the next trend or hottest album any more than your best friend is when he comes to you, eyes gleaming with excitement, and insists “you gotta hear this!” We love music, and have as long as we can remember. We also love sharing what music means: the good and the bad (but ideally the good), the moments a song conjures, the ideas under the surface that make it meaningful, whatever. So when a bunch of us got to see Neutral Milk Hotel last month, we knew it would be an experience that needed to happen. As the date got closer, we also knew it was something we wanted to share with you. Here, then, are some reflections on indie rock’s greatest recluse, his band of mad scientists, and making the impossible possible.
I’d been working this concert up to dangerous levels of expectations. Going into the venue, doubts started sneaking in. The Orpheum Theatre, fully seated with no standing room, did not seem capable of accomplishing the standing room communal singalong experience which I’d participated in at the Jeff Mangum solo show in Providence last winter.
The NMH show started much like the one in Providence, with just Jeff Mangum coming out to play Two Headed Boy. Immediately everyone took to their feet and began singing with him. The rest of the band came out for the next song. They’d head backstage for any solo acoustic songs, giving the stage back to the reclusive man behind an album that has meant so much to so many aging hipsters.
Almost every song from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was included in the setlist, but about half of it was from the band’s otherwise limited and fairly unknown back catalog. I’m admittedly not nearly as familiar with On Avery Island and other b-sides as I am with Aeroplane, but for what will probably be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I’ll take as much as I can get. Based on the audience’s post-show buzz, I don’t think anyone else was disappointed either.
I think the thing that jumped out most to me about the Neutral Milk Hotel show was how energetic the band was, and how excited they were to play these songs together. Jeff and I both talked about the communal experience of the solo Jeff Mangum show from last year. It was unlike any concert I had ever been to. People often talk about the power music has to bring people together, and certainly Mangum is not the first to embrace that power, but this was something beyond even that. This wasn’t an audience simply singing every word, but with it the joy that only comes with years of waiting for something most had no hope of ever happening. With the full band back together, that sense of excitement, that “this is really happening” tension seemed to come from the band more than the audience. This is in no way a criticism, it was a joy to watch, and that excitement seemed to spread to the crowd. They weren’t always tight, as it seemed like there were numerous points where something wasn’t quite where it was expected to be, but that wasn’t the point (one could easily make the case that it never was with NMH). This was about celebrating the seemingly
When Jeff Mangum came to Providence on his last solo jaunt, I got a ticket because it was a melding of two flagrant errors in the music system: Mangum touring at all, and Providence getting a meaningful show. It was maybe not ideal: it was snowed out and postponed, and Mangum stayed seated the whole show, making him impossible to see at times. Still, it was electric. As I stated walking out of the show, I don’t remember the last time I shouted my love for Jesus Christ so loudly and earnestly. Probably never. If the resurrection of his band did not produce the same stereo caterwaul from the crowd, perhaps it is because they had gotten that catharsis already. This time, it seemed it was about hushed reverence.
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is an album I listen to very rarely, but when I need to hear it, no other album will do. It’s one that affects me deeply and weirds me out at the same time. The show perhaps is no different: when bands get back together, even at their tightest, you can sometimes see how different people have grown to be. If I ran into Neutral Milk Hotel in a doctor’s waiting room, I wouldn’t presume any of them would ever cross paths anywhere else, let alone that they played in a band once upon a time. There’s almost always the character who is more excited than the more iconic members to finally play again, the one who looks like he stumbled out of upper class suburbia to rock out once more, the one who probably hadn’t played his instrument for a decade. That interplay, the strangeness of knowing these are men who had lives likely far from the rock stage a year ago, who potentially had gone long spans of time without catching up, and yet who were responsible for an album many would consider seminal, life-changing even, is its own strange beauty. So while the show was gorgeous, full of the lush orchestration fans are familiar with from the albums, with many wildly talented multi-instrumentalists, more striking still is realizing that, for the years since Aeroplane, these gems were right under our noses.
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