It’s very easy to slip into cliché and hyperbole when describing an extraordinary live music performance, tossing around “transcendental” and “a religious experience” like you’re the first idiot with a word processor to connect a crowd of people singing in unison to a church gathering belting out a hymn or two. But, dammit, clichés are clichés because they tap into something true, even if they become worn out through overuse. Neutral Milk Hotel’s show at the Tivoli was indeed akin to a religious experience; it was transcendental. It was glorious and heartbreaking and tremendous.
If you haven’t heard of Neutral Milk Hotel, I’m not too surprised; pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to about the band seems to be unaware they exist. This isn’t necessarily surprising; lead singer Jeff Mangum is a notoriously shy recluse who made the unfortunate mistake of recording one of those truly perfect albums: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s as though a precocious, arty teenager’s head was cracked open and allowed to slough, unfiltered, onto an LP – there’s scribbles from the margins of notebooks and achingly personal diary entries about long-dead girls and an obsession with sex less fixated on desire than curiosity. It’s like absolutely nothing else and it’s indescribably gorgeous. The record’s success sent Mangum into self-imposed obscurity; he’s resurfaced over the last few years and only now have Neutral Milk Hotel reformed to tour the world.
So perhaps you can see why last night’s show would’ve warranted such reverence that I’d break out that “religious experience” cliché. It’s not just the fact that the crowd was singing “I love you Jesus Christ,” together, nor that Jeff Mangum’s beard was approaching messianic scruffiness. Rather, the atmosphere was created by an audience united in a kind of shocked away that they were actually seeing Neutral Milk Hotel, something that would have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago. Prior to the concert, the band requested no photography – not even smartphones. Remarkably, to a man, the crowd followed this command; it’s somewhat surreal to look across a dark crowd in 2013 and see not even a single glowing LCD screen. Less crowd than congregation, the aura under the dark eaves of The Tivoli was captured by a yelled comment at the conclusion of “Oh Comely” – “I’ve been waiting for this moment my entire life!”
Neutral Milk Hotel’s set was preceded by support acts from Superchunk and M Ward. When the Harvest festival – originally scheduled for the upcoming weekend – was cancelled earlier in the year, Superchunk and Neutral Milk Hotel were the two acts on the line-up I was most disappointed to miss, so getting to see Superchunk as “special guests” was a real treat. The band members maintained the teenagers-tooling-around-in-a-garage energy of their ‘90s work despite mostly pushing fifty (bassist Laura Ballance wasn’t in attendance). M Ward was less impressive, but maybe it’s just my lack of enthusiasm for country-tinged folk music. It’s hard to supply meaningful criticism for a genre I have no interest in so, uh, their lighting was nice? They appeared to know how to play their instruments? Let’s move on.
I expected to enjoy the main event, but as the band and assistants began to pile instrument after instrument on the expansive Tivoli stage – a banjo, a tuba (or possibly baritone euphonium?), a French horn, a trombone, a trumpet, electric bagpipes, a few keyboards, and not one, not two, but three saws – I began to realise that this was going to be something truly spectacular. The opening salvo of “The King of Carrot Flowers, Part One” into “The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two & Three” into the exhilarating “Holland, 1945” was easily the best introduction to any gig I’ve ever attended. It was also remarkably clever setlist construction – putting the band’s catchiest, most danceable work at the start gave the set room to breathe, ensuring that songs like “Two-Headed Boy, Part Two” (which was amazing) and “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” had their full impact.
Not that I was pondering the vagaries of setlist ordering at the time. During a great gig, you’ll be thinking about how much you’re enjoying the show, what songs you’re looking forward to and so on and so forth. But during a truly spectacular show like last night’s, you’re not thinking …anything. You’re transported, you’re one with the music …you start to write things that sound like you collect crystals and regularly call online psychics. Neutral Milk Hotel was that sort of show, sublime, beautiful and astounding. I didn’t recognise every song – I’d simply never heard more obscure tracks like “Ferris Wheel on Fire” before – but that didn’t stop from being carried away on a tide of, yes, transcendental, yes, religious fervour and floating away from the venue having experienced a truly special performance.