Neutral Milk Hotel; The Roundhouse, London, 21/05/14
Neutral Milk Hotel are a band who inspire devotion. Or at least their classic 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea does. It becomes very clear once at the show that the majority of the crowd is only familiar with those eleven songs over any of the rest of the band’s (admittedly small) output. This lead to a fascinating show, that whilst filled with magical sing-alongs, was also characterised by a crowd not really knowing what to do with themselves when any song that wasn’t recognisable from the first two chords was being played.
Before the show began with an ominous voice made an announcement asking that no photography or recording of the show occur. This old school aesthetic chimed with the lead singer, Jeff Mangum’s, appearance. He looked like he hadn’t seen a razor in over a decade, giving credence to the stereotype of a hermit which he effectively was for at least ten years. His facial hair, however, was outmatched by another band member, Scott Spillane, whose face looked in danger of being consumed by his fluffy white Santa Claus beard.
The night began with one of its best moments, Jeff appearing alone and performing ‘Two Headed Boy’ was amazing and gave me my first indication that Mangum’s inimitable voice, whilst as nasal as ever, had possibly improved with time. The rest of the band then appeared as he segued the song in ‘The Fool’ and we were off.
One thing that surprised me about the show was the band’s energy and vigour. With Neutral Milk Hotel there is a danger of focusing too much on Mangum’s lyrics and people tend to forget that this is a band that really know how to rock. The best example of this was ‘Holland, 1945’ arguable the closest thing the band has ever had to a hit, but the aggressiveness was also showcased by a lot of the band’s non-ITAOTS material. This made these songs a lot less awkward than they could have been, as even though a lot less of the audience knew these tracks the drive that the band performed them with still made them great experiences, but noticeably different ones from the ITAOTS songs.
The standout moment of the show was an amazing performance of ‘Oh Comely’. At the end of the song, I felt like yelling “holy shit” in an homage to the producer who did so at the end of the album take. I found myself so surprised at how little seemed to have changed between album and live takes (not a bad thing at all, in fact it was very impressive).
I had an amazing time at this show, but I really don’t think it could have gone any other way. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is that important an album for me, and one that I never possibly dreamt of having the chance to see live. Nowadays music journalism is awash with articles complaining about the monotony of bands reforming and up to this point, I’d always agreed with them from the comfort of my own laptop. But when it’s your band that are reforming and you’re there singing along to every word in a packed crowd, that doesn’t matter one bit, and when nostalgia trips are this excellent it doesn’t matter what they are or why they’re happening, it just matters that you were there.