I was worried going into Neutral Milk Hotel's set at Liberty Hall last night. Not for anything relating to the band mind you. I've seen them twice before, lead-singer Jeff Mangum once, and instinctively knew it would be an all-encompassing emotional event. There would be the sparse howling of "Oh Comely," the galloping "Song Against Sex" and the heavenly death mediation of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." Everything would A-Okay in that regard.
I was worried because I was going to the show solo. Even when I'm covering an event, I generally hate going solo because I love talking music with people. I run this blog to share and rhapsodize about music. So being "stuck" at a show is worrisome because all of that enthusiasm is bottled up. That's incredibly true of an NMH show where five different nerves can be struck on the same song. When those nerves are blocked, when you don't have anyone to connect with, it can be crippling.
Those concerns were ultimately unfounded though because it was Neutral Milk Hotel I was seeing. If there are more inclusive fan-bases in music, I’ve yet to find them. NMH is one of those bands where if you look around at the crowd you know you’re on the same sonic wavelength. It takes a particular sort of person to hear earnest poetry in lyrics about Anne Frank and "placing fingers through the notches in your spine." It’s incredibly strange because Mangum’s lyrics are so intentionally cryptic that rallying around them shouldn’t be possible. They’re so tightly coiled, and he so personally reserved with his wild tangles of hair, that getting into the band’s world is an uphill slog on the level of Micky Ward trying to win in The Fighter.
But once you’re in, you’ll "wait for the rest of your life" as the line in "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2" goes. The crowd at Liberty Hall was in before Magnum even took the stage to hammer away on the chords of Ferris Wheel on Fire cut "I Will Bury You in Time." Everyone around me lost their shit when the similarly bearded Scott Spillane came out to tune up his trombone. In all deference to Spillane, who is so splendidly puckish in the way he sings along to the lyrics when he’s not playing, a crowd that’s enthralled by the mere presence of a trombone player is one that will eat up anything.
And for the span of an hour-and-a-half, the sold-out crowd did just that. They head-banged to "Holland, 1945." They went silent for severely underrated On Avery Island tracks "Baby for Pree" and "Gardenhead." Mass hypnosis happened during the acid-folk/baroque march of "The Fool" where Spillane’s horns cried and Julian Koster’s accordion wearily exhaled. The roof could’ve caved-in at that moment and no one would’ve noticed for what was happening on stage. We all did our best warbly Mangum impersonation when he creakily declared "There is no reason to grieve" in "Two-Headed Boy."
Realistically, the line is one of the best pieces of advice you could offer to anyone worrying about the future of the band. This will be their last tour for a while, and considering they previously went dormant for a decade, things look pretty dim. The notion was reinforced by Mangum who was uncharacteristically warm at times when he would put his hands over his heart in gratitude to the fervent crowd.
But like my fear of going alone, the band’s absence doesn’t matter. People who weren’t even alive when either of their albums dropped in the mid-90s continue to find them. There will always be a community around this band. Even when they go away their music will be around. It’ll be around to cry over, to laugh with and to giddily rock out to. There’s no reason to grieve.