There’s at least one thing all graduates of liberal arts colleges have in common: a formative night of lying on the floor of a dorm room listening to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea discussing the existence of God and the meaning of life while contraband candles or a string of Christmas tree lights glows softly in the background. This experience is most typically followed by subsequent weeks of listening to the album on repeat, searching for more information about who Neutral Milk Hotel is and from where such puzzling and emotionally-purging lyrics could have come. Then, finally, there is devastation as the internet reveals the history of the band and that you have no hope of ever seeing them live in concert or an upcoming album to look forward to. (If this does not accurately describe your undergraduate experience, you should ask for your $160,000 back.)
As someone from the “twitterverse” so aptly stated, Jeff Mangum, the genius behind Neutral Milk Hotel, is the J.D. Salinger of indie music. The band’s website is a time capsule of sorts: it lists tour dates up through the October 13, 1998 when the band—unbeknownst to anyone at the time, including the band members themselves—played their final live performance in London. For those of you who don’t know the story, after achieving unanimous critical acclaim (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was heralded as the best independent record of the decade by Magnet Magazine ), Mangnum had enough of the pressures of fame and abruptly disappeared from the spotlight. While there was never any formal announcement that the band had broken up, time passed and it began to seem that aside from the occasional release of a stray live track or publication of an invasive interview of Mangum’s relatives or ex-girlfriends, this really was it.
And then, earlier this year, Jeff Mangum rose from the ashes and announced tour dates across the United States. In the time he had been in hibernation, his fan base had only multiplied, and so when tickets went on sale for his January 27th show at the Lincoln Theater, it sold out in seconds. One can only imagine the pain of waiting over a decade to have a musical wish fulfilled and then seeing it vanish before your eyes because you didn’t hit the refresh button on your browser quickly enough . Luckily, the 9:30 Club (they coordinated the whole thing), responded quickly and added a second night, thus ensuring that far fewer dreams were crushed.
The mood in the Lincoln Theater both Friday and Saturday night was electric. The Music Tapes, fellow members of the Elephant 6 collective, opened the show for Mangum as they had for Neutral Milk Hotel in several 1998 shows. The anticipation built as the crowd wondered what they would hear—had Mangum spent the intervening decade writing a trove of new music? Would he play Neutral Milk Hotel songs? How would he compensate for the heavy instrumentation on many of the recorded songs? Would he be standoffish or unpersonable?
Mangum took the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. The crowd was effusive, standing spontaneously after, and even during, songs to applaud, cheering as Mangum started songs or simply finished first verses. The joy of the crowd was palpable, people beaming at the complete strangers next to them, feeling the collective identity that comes from sharing the experience of hearing songs that hold deep personal meaning played aloud. At first, the crowd was reverent, but Mangum relaxed the atmosphere by saying, “If you sing along at home, there’s no reason you shouldn’t do it here.” The crowd didn’t take much coaxing, and belted out the lyrics to “Holland 1945,” some even shedding tears of the happiness (or, perhaps of mourning for Anne Frank, who this song and much of Aeroplane is about).
Mangum’s voice is distinct. It’s nasal, but deep and strong. He clearly hasn’t let his vocal strength idle over the past several years, which he showed off by ending “King of Carrot Flowers” and holding the note for a dramatically long time before plunging uninterrupted into “King of Carrot Flowers Parts Two and Three.” During “King of Carrot Flowers,” he answered the question of how he would offset the horn solos—he sang them. And, when, he next played “Ghost,” the thousand voices in the crowd belted out the horn solo as one, knowing every note by heart as if part of an innate knowledge set indie rock disciples are born with. A couple times throughout the set, he was joined by the Music Tapes’ Julian Koster on the singing saw, and at the close of “Two-Headed Boy,” the entire opening band came on stage with drum, trumpet, accordion and tambourine to fill out the entirely instrumental “The Fool.”
The sets both Friday and Saturday night were nearly the same, featuring favorites off of the band’s first recording, On Avery Island, such as “Naomi,” and “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” as well as most of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Mangum didn’t surprise the crowd with any new songs, although “Engine” and “Little Birds” may have been new to fans that haven’t spent hours on Youtube searching for live performances and rarities.
Both nights, Mangum was called back for an encore. And when the crowd just couldn’t stop clapping and crying out in ecstasy, he obliged by coming out for a second encore. He thanked the audience several times for being there and remarked how nice it felt to play his songs and have people sing along. He encouraged people to yell out between songs, opening himself up to being asked, “What have you been up to the past ten years?” to which he replied, “Just been living life and being happy.” Another person asked, “Will you make more records?” with other voices from around the theater calling out, “Please!” Mangum replied that he doesn’t know.
So, I guess now we just wait and see. Maybe a positive touring experience will inspire Mangum to create a deluge of new work. Or maybe, he will disappear again and we will have to learn to appreciate the music he has given us as a perfect and complete whole, considering ourselves lucky to have been at the Lincoln Theater those Friday and Saturday nights in January to have finally realized the dream of seeing Jeff Mangum play live.
Saturday night set :
- Two-Headed Boy Part Two
- Holland 1945
- Song Against Sex
- Little Birds
- King of Carrot Flowers Part One
- King of Carrot Flowers Parts Two and Three
- Oh Comely
- Two-Headed Boy Part One
- The Fool
- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
- Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone