A few years ago, Jenny and I trekked to Milwaukee to see Jeff Mangum because, we assumed, that was as close as we were going to get to seeing Neutral Milk Hotel in the flesh. The sold out yet extremely intimate show at the gorgeous old Pabst Theater was one of the most rewarding concert going experiences of my life. It was a show where everyone in the crowd knew not only how special the show was, but how special the songs were, and being surrounded by hundreds of people who have internalized all of the joy and horror and emotional devastation of Mangum’s songs is a treat.
We got let in early because Jenny is 8 months pregnant and if she didn’t get to sit in the balcony, we were probably going to have to go home. It’s the first time we have really exploited this pregnancy to get special treatment, and there was something grimly satisfying about standing in the lobby watching the people in the line that stretched down two city blocks. We got the most rockstar seats imaginable and settled in. Watching the room fill was a treat. The people at the front of the line appeared to be mostly teenagers, and the way they quite literally sprinted to the front of the stage was a perfect illustration of how Neutral Milk Hotel’s songs from 16 years ago are changing the lives of people who weren’t even born when In The Aeroplane Over the Sea was released.
15 or 16 feels like the perfect age to find your favorite band. I can’t remember exactly when or why I first listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but I do remember how I felt: “Holy Shit!” It’s a sentiment shared by the album’s producer, Robert Schneider, at the end of “Oh Comely.” It’s the only possible reaction to experiencing lightning in a bottle. Something that is absolute magic and opens up parts of your self that you didn’t know were there like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It feels like my life is divided into two sections: Before Aeroplane and after Aeroplane.
All this talk about Aeroplane obviously neglects that the band also released On Avery Island two years prior to their masterpiece which, if they had never released a second record, would probably still be very highly esteemed. But during the show, you could tell where people’s hearts were, and why it was wonderful to see tracks like “Naomi” and “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” played with fuzzy, raucous glee, whenever the band broke out the Aeroplane tracks if felt like they had stumbled across the answer to world peace. People arm and arm, swaying from side to side, singing along. They put down their cell phones and absorbed the moment. I can’t think of another band that might command an audience to abandon taking shitty cell phone pictures or live-blogging through an entire show.
The set opened with Jeff Mangum taking the stage alone and quickly setting in to “Two Headed Boy.” I immediately went from being pissed at the kids in the center of the room passing around a joint (“Why are kids so stupid, Jenny? I mean, how is it so hard for them to learn about consequences! Make some pot brownies! Something less conspicuous great now the whole fucking room smells like doobies!”) to the special place I reserve for listening to Neutral Milk Hotel. I must have heard that song five hundred times. When Jenny and I first started dating, there were entire days we would just lay around in my bedroom listening to this record, staring into each other’s eyes with great intensity. It’s a fairly large piece of the puzzle of our relationship, which went from listening to this album on repeat in my gross house five years ago to sitting in the balcony of the Uptown Theater with my hand on her belly feeling our daughter flail and kick at the loud music. The transcendental quality of Mangum’s songs are the only thing that have ever made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the universe, and listening to his music is as close as I get to having a spiritual experience. Seeing those songs live was like going to church and acknowledging a power greater than myself.
Although here the power was Jeff Mangum in full mountain man mode with a beard and hat obscuring his face and his merry band injecting loopy bliss into the show. Bassist/multi-instrumentalist/singing saw virtuoso Julian Koster spinning around the stage with an accordion. Gigantic Scott Spillane barking along the words to every song in between playing those horn parts that somehow make the songs even more emotionally resonant. Drummer Jeremy Barnes absolutely working magic to the point where on a couples songs I just watched to try to figure out how he was doing what he was doing and had to give up because it was too much. The whole thing was chaotic in the best way. Like a circus band giving the impression that the wheels could fall off at any moment. It was what I expected, which is what I wanted, which is what everybody wanted. It is what it was and there was a collective moment, which was the whole point.
It was so nice to see all the bullshit stripped away. Even though Jeff Mangum’s songs are cryptic and weird, they’re some of the most personal songs I’ve ever heard, which is why I cry every time I heard “Two-Headed Boy Part 2.” Which is why I was totally exhausted at the end of the show because of all the emotional energy spent. Almost all of Aeroplane was represented (“Communist Daughter” was the only track that went unplayed) as well as most of On Avery Island and deep cuts “Engine” and “Ferris Wheel on Fire.” Everything was great, the crowd was the most generous I’ve ever seen in Kansas City, and as Mangum and co played their final strums I came to peace with the fact that in all likelihood this was the first and only time I would ever see this band play. Which is fine, considering I never thought I’d get to see them play in the first place. This was never supposed to have happened, and that it did makes me a minor believer in miracles.