Why Neutral Milk Hotel put on the best concert of 2015

Neutral Milk Hotel perform in Brooklyn in 2014. Photo by Flickr user Vladimir
Neutral Milk Hotel perform in Brooklyn in 2014.
Photo by Flickr user Vladimir

At the most impressive musical event of 2015, two men in beards and beanie caps bounded about the stage playing all manner of weird instruments, from accordions and hand saws to trumpets and trombones. Meanwhile, a tired man in the corner morosely strummed a guitar and belted out lyrics he first squeezed from the soul in 1997.

This was the scene at Neutral Milk Hotel’s performance at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall on Thursday, May 8. I went expecting to see an audience enraptured by one of the most revered bands in indie, singing along to every word of their edificial 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and swimming in cathartic tears. And sure, it happened – I myself had to kneel down and collect myself during “Oh Comely,” the devastatingly romantic centerpiece of the album and show. But it was also the most joyful, exuberant show I’ve ever had the privilege to attend, and from the start, it was a true spectacle.

A curtain parted, and Jeff Mangum, the legendary creative engine of the band, walked slowly to pick up his guitar. Bearded, solemn and weary, he looked very ready to return home to Athens, Georgia and never tour again.  I didn’t blame him: the band has been on the road for about two years, and the songwriter retreated into seclusion after Aeroplane’s release. This is why seeing him at all is such a thrill: he’s a mythic figure who cast a block of profound artistry into the public sphere and never followed up.

Countering Mangum’s seriousness, the rest of the band seemed more than happy to perform.  Two of them entered the stage by literally popping up from behind their instruments, making the sort of unabashed whimsy the band’s music sincerely imparts a visual thing.  It’s that strain of silliness that made Neutral Milk Hotel the most unlikely major influence to ever hit the North American underground. There’s nothing remotely exotic or cool about their music, a blend of folk, zydeco and psychedelics, yet over the years it’s amassed a huge fan base and generated a dozen internet memes, leading to more discovery and adoration.

Much of this is due to Mangum’s strange, personal lyrics and the story behind them.  He made In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, by far the group’s most famous album, after being profoundly moved by The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. A yearning for her can be heard throughout the album, from the rousing tribute of “Holland, 1945” to the sorrowful “Oh, Comely.”

Detail of a t-shirt purchased at the show. Photo by Douglas Markowitz
Detail of a t-shirt purchased at the show.
Photo by Douglas Markowitz

Over the years, the album and its story made its way through the underground.  Its influence codified indie culture in North America, from the varied instrumentation and anthemic broadness of Arcade Fire’s Funeral to the handmade aesthetics of director Wes Anderson and the innocent sexuality of his film Moonrise Kingdom.  Many have cherished the compassionate weirdness and goofball sound of Mangum’s words and music, but he himself never cherished the spotlight.

With this in mind, it makes sense that he looked somewhat uncomfortable onstage. He’s clearly not a performer. He famously bans any cameras, photos or recording. He doesn’t banter. He just wants to sing his songs and keep from funny business.

While Mangum stood off to the side, Julian Koster and Scott Spillane took center stage, backed by Jeremy Barnes on drums and a group of supporting players. Koster, in his trademark beanie cap, demanded the most attention.  He jumped around the stage with an accordion across his chest and often spoke for the band, dispensing stories and messages of gratitude. He’s also responsible for the more unique flourishes in the band’s sound, playing accordion, synthesizer, bowed banjo and singing saws.

Spillane, portly with a white beard that made him look like Jolly Old Saint Nick (only ten times as jolly) was also a fountain of jubilance, mouthing every word of every song along with the audience.  He plays guitar, but more importantly, he’s the band’s chief horn player, using trumpet, euphonium and trombone for essential color. His horns were beat up and scruffy, but their wear, and his unrestrained, proudly out-of-tune playing made him all the more admirable. This, I think, is what inspired so many musicians to take up the mantle after hearing NMH. Not all of us can become the next Coltrane or Miles Davis, but we can certainly pick up a horn and play “The Fool.” It makes a difference to the amateur.

It also makes a difference to the crowd, who were more exuberant, more elated than any I’ve seen, dancing and belting out all the lyrics to all the songs as if they were scripture. It was a privilege to see legends perform their legendary songs, but seeing the crowd respond so rapturously was the true gift of the evening. Even Jeff managed a smile at the end, sworn duty done until the next gig. To think that so many people could find empathy and joy in something so insular, personal and strange is unthinkable, and after a difficult year packed with fantastic new music, it’s nice to be reminded that we can still find new thrills in old joy.

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