These Songs Belong to Everyone: Reflecting on Seeing Neutral Milk Hotel Live

Neutral_Milk_HotelAlthough during Netural Milk Hotel’s hiatus Jeff Mangum began appearing in public, at shows, more frequently, contributing parts to friends’ records, and even releasing material, it was hard to see a reunion tour as likely. Even when Mangum launched an extensive world solo tour over the last two years, it felt to me unlikely that the full band would tour again. Perhaps Neutral Milk Hotel had become so beloved that fans couldn’t allow themselves to believe the band might one day reunite—hope as inadvisable as waiting around for dead lovers to return from the grave. So, when the band announced their first couple of shows at festivals, my initial instinct was to buy a plane ticket. Ultimately, monetary and time constraints prevented me, but my patience (or incapacitation) would not betray me—this week brought the complete original lineup of Neutral Milk Hotel to Austin for back to back shows Monday and Tuesday.

Arriving at ACL Live’s Moody Theater incredibly early, I unabashedly make my way to the front and center of the floor. I am genuinely nervous. I cover three or four shows a week and have seen and photographed most of my favorite bands over the last few years, and still, I stand nervously, jittery, butterflies in my stomach. At 8:00, Elf Power comes on, are instantly incredible, and remain so throughout the set. Like many of the Elephant 6 bands, they’ve been completely underrated over the years. Hopefully, supporting Neutral Milk Hotel on these dates supplies a spark of interest in their back catalog, which is truly incredible. Live, the band is phenomenally tight, every part working together perfectly, as the band moves through songs both elegant and powerful. Andrew Rieger’s twelve-string electric guitar has always provided the band with a particular aesthetic that’s in full effect live.

When Neutral Milk Hotel comes on, the crowd completely loses it. When they start playing “King of Carrot Flowers Pt.1” tears well up in my eyes as everyone is screaming along at the top of their lungs. Normally, I find it a little off-putting when crowds insist on singing along to songs, but this is something different. These songs belong to everyone. When Mangum disappeared, a strange thing happened. As enigmatic and discussed as he was as a figurehead, the songs themselves are what people were left with to love. It’s the songs we were there to hear. Even as dramatically ridiculous as some of the dancing and shouts from the crowd were throughout the night, I still felt a kinship with everyone around me as we all sang. It makes sense, as Neutral Milk Hotel was born out of and continues to be part of an incredibly strong family of musicians. The sense of community is heart-stoppingly affecting.

The cast of Neutral Milk Hotel is incredible, working together to create impeccable renditions of almost every song from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, many from On Avery Island, and several obscurities. Scott Spillane’s trumpet is wonderful, Jeremy Barnes is indefatigable on drums, and Julian Koster adds the signature singing saw, hitting every note from the album. From what I’ve read and from friends’ first-hand accounts, the energy echoes those shows from a decade and a half ago in Athens. I can’t express how lucky I feel to have experienced it.

Mangum’s decision to remove himself from the spotlight forced people to consider the music foremost. Even now, his eschewing of any photographs and seeking as little press as possible keeps the focus on the music. Unlike many enigmatic artists who seem reclusive for the sake of inspiring even more fervor, Mangum’s translates as completely sincere. Onstage, the shadow of his cap hides his eyes as his long beard dangles toward his guitar. Between songs, he minimizes uproarious applause by placing his hands together in thankfulness and quietly murmurs the words thank you.

I can’t help but be in awe. Over the years, I’ve been accused many times of being too idealistic, expecting too much from people who are, after all, just people. In large part, I’ve come to see this as true of myself—then, there’s Jeff Mangum. He’s the opposite of standing on a pedestal, making a lot of noise, and backing it up with no action. This is the guy who, during the period of his break from music, emerged to play a set for the folks at Occupy Wall Street. His sincerity is staggering. What can I say? He inspires me—sets ablaze that part of me that wants the world to be a better place. These lines from “Holland 1945” have always affected me: “It’s so sad to see the world agree that they’d rather see their faces filled with flies, all when I want to keep white roses in their eyes.” My best friends have always been songs. They understand me in a way the world never could. I suspect many of the people singing along Tuesday night feel the same way, as Mangum’s songs have become friends to many over the years. Spending an evening with some of my best friends was easily one of the most profound musical experiences of my life.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

Pop Press International © 2018 All Rights Reserved

All photos licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Designed by WPSHOWER

Powered by WordPress