How Strange It Is; an Evening at the Neutral Milk Hotel
Jeff Mangum exists. He is a human being, he has a family and a life. According to him, currently that life consists of a “flower puzzle” right now. I am putting this in as a disclaimer because I don’t want to sound like I think him a demigod.
When I found of that Jeff Mangum was touring, I immediately contacted some of my biggest Neutral-Milk-Hotel-Fan friends, eventually organizing two of them months and months in advance to see the man. How could I not? Jeff Mangum’s music has personally changed my opinions on conventional beauty in music and in the world. As far as a songwriter goes, he is the standard which I compare all other music, and he has made me cry four distinct times (and I am not a crier). Once when I was literally on an Aeroplane over the sea, once when I was siting poolside and drowning in rapturous sun, once walking my agoraphobic beagle through a windstorm, and once last night, surrounded by the heat of bodies and the cool air of a rainy winter day.
Even if Mangum hadn't shown, it would have been one of the best shows I have ever seen. It started with a brief set of lovely solo tunes from one half of the Tall Firs, David Miles. Without his band mate, the set was a little monotonous, but it was beautiful and brief, and seamlessly tied together with Miles’ own skill at story telling. I was satiated, but I didn’t know what I was in for.
The fact that I had never listened to The Music Tapes before maddens me. A project of Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster, The Music Tapes put on one of the most beautiful, inventive, and powerful live shows I have ever seen. The folk storytelling was sublime, as was the music, a potent combination of bowed and unbowed banjo, synthesizer, horns, chimes, and relentlessly low-fi sounding bass. By the time their set was over, the only question I really could ask was, “What just happened?”.
Had Mangum himself not come on stage, it would still have been a fantastic show. But he did, and after some hardcore love from the audience, he broke into the “Two Headed Boy” two parter, one of the strongest sets of music in his repertoire. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but I was. He sounded fantastic. He was almost easy to listen to. All four of the guitars that were played sounded warm, in tune, and inviting, despite Mangum’s aggressive strumming style. And his voice, that celtic wail that Neutral Milk Hotel fans are so familiar with, sounded absolutely fantastic. Usually the singing on Neutral Milk Hotel songs is an acquired taste; a series of powerful, and volatile wails that are on the edge of discord. But here, live, and in the flesh, that discord doesn’t exist, but the power lingers. Over the course of the last decade, Mangum has clearly learned how to master his powerful, uncompromising voice, and that is something worth celebrating.
The setlist itself was perfect. Near every song on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Which, I might add, is at this moment my second favorite album of all time, only to Radiohead’s Kid A) was performed, including “Oh Comely” in all of its sprawl and splendorand a pitched down, emotionally devastating rendition of fan favorite “Holland 1945”. But the strongest moments came when he dove into the On Avery Island cannon. “Song Against Sex”, “A Baby For Pree”, “Gardenhead”, and “Naomi”, were all given justice in fantastic renditions. He has spent so time with those songs, I can’t blame him.
Most of the time I was looking at Mangum, but when I looked around in the crowd, I was amazed. So many fans were so connected and so moved simultaneously. At one point, he came out and said “I would ask you to sing along, but you’re doing it already, so keep it up.” in his characteristic mumble. And boy, did they sing along. People threw themselves into songs like “The King of Carrot Flowers” and “Oh Comely” to the point where it was no longer a Jeff Mangum show, it was a massive interconnection of people who love music and love him.
Most Jeff Mangum songs feel skeletal, just a handful of chords and some lyrics that a man and his friends wove into something so much more powerful. But, when it’s just the man, you can see what makes these songs so special; the people who listen to them. In that crowd, I realized how much a few chords and few words can mean to a person, how much a crowd of people can connect to each other, how much they can give back to a song, and “how strange it is to be anything at all”. Thank you, Jeff Mangum, for everything.
(editors note: in true CT fashion it was a no photo/no recording allowed, even cellphone", event. why we are cursed to have such restriction is beyond me but Conor Oberst pulled that crap too- but I had nothing to lose. I nicked this pic off of Manic Productions (thanks kids!) and heres a 2009 viddy to sing along with-–hb)