When I first became totally obsessed with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the prospect of ever seeing Neutral Milk Hotel live seemed slim-to-none. The group's singer / songwriter / guitarist Jeff Mangum had originally broken up the band in 1999 following a nervous breakdown, leading him into a self-imposed exile during which In the Aeroplane's legend (and popularity) only grew. In 2011, to much fanfare, Mangum finally emerged to perform an East coast solo tour, which I had the pleasure of catching during his stop at NYC's Town Hall in October. It was a joyous evening, with Mangum frequently urging the eager crowd to join him in singing along, and the people gladly obliged.
Why has the cult of In the Aeroplane flourished so mightily over the years? Well, people love a good backstory, and this one's a humdinger: tortured artist Mangum reads The Diary of Anne Frank in his 20s, becoming obsessed with the story and the sad plight of the book's young protagonist. The intensity of his fixation eventually leads him to be tormented by vivid, recurring dreams in which he is able to travel back in time, saving Frank from her death at a concentration camp. Mangum then creates a song cycle partially inspired by this obsession, but also populated by a circus freak, various unnamed (and unscrupulous) family members, and all manner of brilliantly vivid imagery.
Of course, an intriguing backstory alone doesn't elevate ordinary art to greatness, and the excellence of the music on In the Aeroplane allows the album to stand on its own. Aeroplane somehow manages to inform its childlike sensibilities with incredibly weighty subject matter, all bound together with instantly memorable melodies and charming, rickety instrumentation. In my estimation, it's one of the ten greatest albums by anyone, ever.
This show was the *fifth* and final sold-out show Neutral Milk Hotel would perform in NYC over the course of a week. Yes, I'd been eagerly anticipating the show for months, but I wasn't the only one; the line to get into Webster Hall was the longest I've ever seen at the venue, stretching literally around the block and going all the way past the movie theater entrance on 3rd Ave. While waiting in the queue, I was approached by a girl who "interviewed" me briefly on behalf of the Village Voice about my NMH fandom; I responded with dumb answers and gave her a fake name.
Neutral Milk Hotel's set began around 10:20 PM with Mangum walking alone onstage and starting "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One," the rest of the band joining him during the song and into "King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three." The playing was absolutely spot-on and faithful to the album versions, with Scott Spillane blowing horns (trumpet, trombone, french horn) and playing occasional guitar, Julian Koster on bass, squeezebox, accordion and singing saw, longtime NMH collaborator Laura Carter (from opening band Elf Power) guesting on trumpet and what may or may not have been a couesnophone, a/k/a a goofus, and other folks guesting on whatever else throughout the show. (Pretty sure Uilleann pipes were played at some point.)
The setlist included nearly everything off of In the Aeroplane (except "Communist Daughter"), as well as several from On Avery Island and Everything Is. Incredibly, the players managed to pull off the idiosyncratic, ramshackle aesthetic of the studio recordings, no easy task; too much polish would've robbed the tunes of their character, although too little proficiency would've distracted from the gorgeous, hypnotic melodies.
To that end, the show's most striking moments occurred when the players were combining to create their unholy racket. The "Ghost" > "Untitled" sequence in particular was simply outstanding, and the title track from In the Aeroplane was wonderful. This, of course, takes absolutely nothing away from the moments during which Mangum was performing unaccompanied. "Two Headed Boy," and the epic "Oh Comely" had the packed room rapt, and if you weren't moved to tears by "Two Headed Boy Pt. Two," then you may actually be a soulless monster.
I had hoped for big things from this show, but I was thoroughly unprepared for how deeply affecting the music would be. Furthermore, it was wonderful to see a NYC crowd as wholly appreciative and respectful of a performance as they were this one. I highly doubt that I'll see a better club show this year, and you bet your britches that I'll be snagging tickets for their show this summer in Prospect Park.
[You may have noticed that there are no photographs or videos accompanying this post, which, for me is pretty rare. Twice, the band requested that people not use cameras, once before the set and once by Mangum himself during the set. It was great to see people obliging by this request - as of the time of this writing there are *no* videos on YouTube from this show.]