Neutral Milk Hotel
Both Joe DeBonis and Josh Hughes decided to write about their experiences seeing Neutral Milk Hotel at the Kiva Auditorium on April 17th, 2014. What follows is each of their accounts told from their own point of view.
So let me start by saying I have two groups of friends with severely opposite knowledge of Neutral Milk Hotel. Group one is wickedly in love with “In The Aeroplane Over Sea” and Jeff Mangum with his beard and array of sweaters. Group two thinks they’re a made up band from Parks And Recreation, and those few that believe in their existence think I’m your quintessential hipster kid for listening to them. And, in all honesty, “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” is one of my favorite, beloved albums. The fact of the matter is, between those two camps, lies four real guys who sat down and recorded one of the most acclaimed albums of all time back in the 90’s.
I saw Jeff Mangum with that first group of friends back in Santa Fe a few years back, but on hearing Neutral Milk Hotel’s reunion, I almost felt an obligation to make sure I was there. My friend (camp #1 friend) bought tickets immediately once they were on sale and got us pretty badass seats in the second row. I showed up at about 7:00, half an hour before the concert and saw nearly exactly what I expected, seemingly everywhere around me: beards, 20 something’s wearing button downs and drinking beer, beards, flowers in peoples hair, band t-shirts, beards, and then some who didn’t fit into my preconceived notion of a Neutral Milk Hotel concert. The opening group, Elf Power, a band from Athens, Georgia, came on and did the best they could to enthrall a seated crowd that wasn’t entirely sure whether they should stand or not. Which was really a shame, because their melodic verse- chorus-verse jams would’ve been ideally taken in with some body moving spirit. My friend and Ravedeaf cowriter Joe (who happened to sit right behind me) said they opened for Deerhunter when he saw them in Georgia, which happens to be the best comparison I can think for Elf Power. They ended on a strong note with a beautifully catchy track that veered on jam rock at some points.
By that point I hadn’t really taken in that I was really going to see Neutral Milk Hotel. It wasn’t until the lights dimmed for the second time and bearded Jeff walked out with an acoustic guitar that it really hit me. Now despite what you’d stereotype about hipsters and the people that’d go see Neutral Milk Hotel, there was a pretty sweet lack of pretentiousness nearly all around. While the energy of a more intimate show appealed to me at some points, everyone was able to fully enjoy the music, and it really seemed like everyone had their full attention on the band. Part of it may have been Jeff’s polite request for everyone to put their phones away, which was refreshing, but everyone there seemed just as excited as I was. They opened with “Two Headed Boy Pt. 1”, starting just with Mangum on guitar, followed by the full band as it went on. At first it was just like seeing him live as a solo artist, but when the band came on, instead of it just being about people backing the front man, each member added their own flair to the whole performance.
They went on with “Holland, 1945”, “Gardenhead” and some songs I didn’t recognize before blasting into “The King Of Carrot Flowers”, which I was anticipating as the most exciting song with the full band. Parts two and three of the song went into melodic frenzy and was probably the most hyped the crowd got during the show. As if that gut punch wasn’t enough, they went head on into the title track of “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”, the most unified moment of the show, where I’m nearly positive everyone in the audience was belting as emotively as they could.
By the time they got to my opinion of that classic album’s centerpiece, “Oh Comely”, everything was back to Jeff and his guitar, but it had even more of a lasting power this time around (on his solo tour he opened with it and I don’t think I was prepared at the time for such a heartbreaking intro). By the end, the French horn came in and made it all the more worthwhile. Mangum still has the chops of his younger years, and he still screams out the loud notes for as long as he possibly can. The full band came back on, and after a few more cuts ended with a beautiful version of “Snow Song, Pt. 1”, a song I didn’t recognize but was probably my biggest highlight of the show. Julian Koster, the rather flamboyant and energetic saw player, led the track with full force. It was when I really realized how much more accomplished musicians they’d come over the years. Jeremy Barnes is one of the most technically talented drummers I’ve ever seen live, and the rest of the band played with each other so effortlessly.
Finally the encore rolled on, and everyone looked existentially devastated by “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2”; I even saw some people around me crying during its heartbreaking conclusion. They finished off with “Engine”, a short lullaby, and the night was done.
Everyone I saw after the show had this enlightened look on their face, and my friends appeared as though they’d just witnessed what’ll be the greatest concert of their lives. The energy around the crowd was just as satisfying as the music, to see how many people have been moved by that band and specifically that album. Even if Jeff Mangum doesn’t release any more music in his life, he’ll always have the legacy and impact of the masterpiece of “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”, and that alone is a bigger accomplishment than many songwriters ever aspire to.
Seeing a legend in the flesh is not something new to me. I have witnessed Bob Dylan gargle through his classics, I have participated in a Lil B sermon and I have beheld my greatest hero, Kanye West, climb fake mountains at the most awe inspiring concert I have ever attended. Jeff Mangum did none of those extraordinary or breath taking actions but just seeing him in person was enough to make its way onto my list of most memorable concerts. The aura and mystery that abounds around the man responsible for the quintessential hipster album of either of the past millenniums is so incredible that it has reached almost bizarre levels. Quitting music after essentially starting a cult following and not appearing for almost 15 years in concert is enough to create a messiah and to see him return to the masses will go down as one of the most historic tours of music. So to say I was excited and a little nervous is an understatement.
When the band announced their reunion tour and had only about eight dates on the first announced list, I almost cried when I realized I would be in Athens, the very city they are from for that part of the tour. Those almost tears turned from joy to sorrow when the shows in Athens sold out in less than 30 seconds. As the tour gained more and more dates and I slowly realized I might have to fly to St. Louis to see the band that basically taught me to expand my horizons past “dad rock,” a kind of panic began to set in. How was the entire country going to be given a shot at seeing Neutral Milk Hotel and I was going to be rejected by the very city they started in. After I returned to Albuquerque from my semester in Athens, and saw that there was going to be even more dates added around the band’s Coachella set, I suddenly began to have hope. Albuquerque is closer to Coachella than most of the country so it would be most logical to come to our quaint city to wow us. The minute the show was announced I started to plan my ticket-buying scheme down to the very second. I would not mess up again. The feeling I had when I finally had these elusive tickets in hand was elation but all of a sudden mixed with anxiety. What if their show would be boring after almost seven months on the road?
I ignored my worry and happiness for the next two months, and as the date began to approach, I reassured myself more and more not to have unrealistic expectations like I was so prone to do. I did my homework and learned their first album as well as revisiting “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” and all of a sudden it was that night and I was on my way to the Kiva Auditorium, where I hadn’t been since I had seen another hero of mine, James Mercer and the Shins. Arriving at what I thought was a late time (about 30 minutes before the listed start time) we ended up waiting an hour for Elf Power to take the stage. I guess it didn’t matter where you are seeing a show; the bands are bound to start late.
Elf Power was good, and I was impressed with myself for recognizing a couple songs from the last time I saw them live when they opened for Deerhunter in Athens last November. They had a nice energy and their songs were quick paced enough that I thought the crowd should have immediately jumped up and at least stood out of respect. Sadly, the crowd easily had a median age of mid 30’s and by that time in life I guess standing for the opener is not accepted. So I satisfied myself with beating on my chest and knees in time with the drum beat building anticipation for what was to come. Elf Power had a quick set punctured with some great moments but their overall sound was really nothing special. As they left the stage, 80% of the crowd left their seats as well to make sure they were hydrated enough for the set that was to come.
It started unpredictably with Jeff Mangum walking onto stage, beard and hat concealing much of his face. He was alone, acoustic guitar in hand as he started to play “Two Headed Boy.” I was so taken aback with how quickly everything started and how one of my favorite songs off of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was what he opened with I almost didn’t comprehend what was going on. Luckily, one of the most legendary Academy kids in Albuquerque, Bryce Gordon, was sitting in front of me and was literally seizing with how excited he was to be seeing such a mythical group as Neutral Milk Hotel. I don’t know if he remembers meeting me at Andrew Jackson Jihad, but I knew his story: the best young musical coinsurer in Albuquerque that frequently chatted with my other friend Ruben via Facebook. Watching him act so incredibly ecstatic quickly jolted me to reality and helped me realize how lucky I was.
Then the flashes started I knew I should have expected it but it still made me actually kind of pissed to see people ignore Mangum’s one request to not take pictures. I was impressed with his composure while he played “Two Headed Boy” as more and more flashes went off. I guess he is used to having to remind people not to take pictures, but it’s a well known fact I assumed. The people taking the pictures were really just doing it to be ass holes. Mangum handled it maturely though so I took his cue and tried not to be bothered by it.
Around this time the show began to immediately fly by as I got caught up in the emotional roller coaster I started to experience as I was inundated with classic songs that I had never truly gotten the chance to scream as loudly as I wanted to. It was incredibly satisfying to wail “I love you Jesus Christ” with 1,000 other people and it was one of the most beautiful moments in my life to hear the horn part in “In the Aeroplane Over The Sea” played live, right in front of me. Even the songs I didn’t have as strong of an emotional connection with or didn’t even recognize resonated with me simply because I could appreciate how rare the sight before me was.
Energy wise, the band performed like this was the first month of their tour, not their seventh and I appreciated their desire to impart a show worth our money. My favorite part was watching the extensive horn section do their work, with trumpets, a trombone, baritone, French horn and flugelhorn all in use, it was as if a mini marching band was before me. I don’t know if it was all the horns or the nostalgia I had associated with everything I was hearing but this was the most I have smiled at a show since I saw Kishi Bashi.
A large part of the success of the night came from how good our seats were. I had managed to snag four seats almost dead center of the stage four rows back and by the luck of the Based God no one tall sat in front of us so the entire night I had a pure view of Mangum. I was not used to watching shows from a seated arena but this was easily the best it could have been under the given circumstances. All of this combined made any unrealistic expectations I came to the show with evaporate, because the entire experience was both amazing but different than what I imagined.
Nothing exemplifies that more than the last song the band played before the encore. “Snow Song, Part One” is off of their EP and is a lo-fi jumble of noise with Mangum gently singing over it all. When they played it live I had no idea what was going on. Gone was the essential hipster music and in came the most reverb the Kiva had probably heard in a long while. It was weird, it was loud and it was awesome to watch the band transform on stage as they got louder and louder with their instruments and the buzzing saws got more and more twanged as the band basically worked themselves into a frenzy. Hearing them end their first set with a song like that helped me remember that no show will ever turn out how I expect it to and I smiled the most I had all night hearing Neutral Milk Hotel go into their internal musician shells on stage as they focused on nothing but the music.
The actual concert ended with another song I didn’t know, but was much more peaceful and more like what I am used to from Jeff Mangum. “Engine,” is a soft ballad, punctuated softly by some French horn playing at times and it wrapped up the whole night beautifully. Jeff Mangum may have hidden from the outside world for over 15 years, but with this extensive tour he was not only announcing he was back, but I think he was announcing he was ready to finally accept how influential In the Aeroplane Over the Sea really was because everyone else that was at the Kiva that night was thinking that very thing. Where would music really be without Jeff Mangum? All I know is that I am unbelievably glad I got to witness him in the flesh at least once.