First off, let me establish my cred.
I began listening to Neutral Milk Hotel about 8 years ago (I can hear you saying “pffffft”) when I was in 9th grade and finally learning about good music. Cut me some slack! So I bought In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, talked endlessly about how it was the greatest thing, and was heartbroken when I realized that Jeff Mangum no longer tours. I resigned myself to listening to him on album and acting like, if I ever did see him, he would probably suck.
Neutral Milk Hotel started in the 1990s and released a full length album, On Avery Island, in 1994. The band released its second full album in 1998, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, to high acclaim for Mangum’s creative lyrics and the unique instrumentation. Throughout the album the character of Anne Frank is present along with provocative characters such as the Two-Headed Boy matched with equally provocative lyrics. After the release of the album and the subsequent touring, Neutral Milk Hotel started turning down show opportunities and officially went on an indefinite hiatus in 1999. Mangum began playing solo shows again in 2010 and scheduled touring dates in 2011. I was reluctant to see him the first time he came my way. I loved Aeroplane’s unique sound of horns and woodwinds, I was afraid an acoustic set would make his stories flat.
I have never been so happy to be wrong.
Dan and I walked into the Strand Capitol Performing Arts Center in York and could immediately feel the static of excitement in the room (or maybe it was from the crazy amount of beards, flannel, and wool on my fellow concert goers.) The opening act Tall Firs was decent and I have to give it to them. They knew no one was there to see them, still they put on a great set. Their music was very soothing, kind of like if whales and Mogwai produced an offspring and peppered it with Peter and the Wolf. I would check them out if you have insomnia.
Around 9pm Jeff Mangum walked on stage. He was wearing a red wool sweater, cords, and an army cap. Honestly he could have been sitting next to you in this crowd and, without a second look, you wouldn’t have realized who he was. Also he had an epic beard. (It has been growing it since May, he said)
He sat down on a plush beat-up chair, picked up a guitar, strummed a note and started playing the first chords of “Oh Comely” When he sang the first note it was like being pulled under by a wave. It was loud, it was powerful, it was raw, it was beautiful, it was real. The sheer volume he produced with his voice just rolled through the crowd and everyone sat in stunned silence. His nasally pitched singing sounded better than on the recordings.
After, the crowd burst into cheers and applause and he began to play “Two-Headed Boy Pt 1.” It was quieter, more restrained, but still so powerful. With a quick “thanks” and a “This is called ‘Gardenhead’,” he continued. There was this impression of shyness melting away with every song, every note. Everyone in that room loved him and it was as if he was making sure of that before he engaged directly with us. After “Ferris Wheel on Fire” and a cover of Rocky Erickson’s “I Love the Living You” he encouraged the crowd to sing along because he could “tell you want to.” And with that he went into “The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One”, followed by part two and three. As the room echoed with a thousand mouths proclaiming “i love you Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ I love you,” it was absolute magic.
“Holland 1945” and “Oh Sister” followed. I have to say “Oh Sister” is much more disturbing when played live. He followed with “Two-Headed Boy Pt Two,” “Song Against Sex,” and “Ghost”. During “Ghost” the whole crowd flocked to the front of the theatre (we had been sitting in seats) and sang with him. It was beautiful.
However the enthusiasm was nothing compared to the whole crowd singing along to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” as his encore.
This show was filled with emotion. You could feel the love from the crowd for Jeff and his music, his lyrics and his voice, his poetry. I was told it would be awkward, watching someone who doesn’t want to perform play live. It was anything but. He was personable, he bantered with the crowd and told some short anecdotes. He was reserved but he didn’t come off like an asshole, just someone who is really shy. Irregardless of his persona on stage, he is one of the most amazing musicians I have seen. The power in his voice and the feeling he projects into the lyrics make the characters in his songs come to life and gives you chills to be present in the wake of it all.
As we know from Oh Comely “soft, silly music is meaningful, magical” and that was never more true than at this show.
Link to Neutral Milk Hotel’s website:
Here are some links to photos of the show:
Here is a link to The Strand’s website: