Flash history lesson: In the early ‘90s, Louisiana transplant Jeff Mangum formed Neutral Milk Hotel, a band that could have audiences crowdsurfing and moshing or rooted to the spot they were standing in and weeping. Draped in dense fuzz and studded with horns, accordions, singing saw strains, and fevered poetic narration that boldly and vulnerably found love in the midst of tragedy, NMH made two studio albums, On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The latter is considered a masterpiece and icon, and is still topping charts like “Greatest Indie Rock Albums of All Time,” and “Top Albums of the 1990s.” More importantly, a lot of people connected with it on a visceral level, and still do to this day—as it’s often said, “Either you’ve never heard Neutral Milk Hotel, or they’ve changed your life.”
Mangum and co. were part of The Elephant 6 Collective (E6), an Athens, GA-based group of musicians and artists who lived, wrote, played and potlucked together. While their band lineups are famously blurred—most projects center around one individual, with support from a rotating cast of E6ers and friends—E6 is responsible for indie, folk, psychedelic and twee staples like of Montreal, The Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Gerbils, and numerous others, in addition to establishing Athens as the indie music capitol of the Southeast.
I was too young to have followed Neutral Milk Hotel when they were active–so for me and many E6 fans my age, the band fell into the Kurt Cobain-Elliott Smith “died young, stayed pretty” canon. When Mangum stopped playing shows as Neutral Milk Hotel in 1999, many of those affected by his music couldn’t understand it–one strong-willed reporter even wrote angered letters and spent months trying to “find” Mangum and demand an explanation as to why he wouldn’t make another record for the fans that connected so deeply with his work. But Mangum wasn’t hiding out in a cabin with his instruments collecting dust in the attic. There was never really a “break up,” as friends of the band have winked.
Over the past few years, Mangum has made appearances at the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour, at Occupy Wall Street, and various benefits. In early 2013, he announced a solo tour—it sold out nearly instantly. Despite spending years making pilgrimages to Athens to see Elephant 6 family shows, I hadn’t listened to NMH in a while—my relationship with those records is like that of the old friend that you don’t keep up with as well as you should, but in times when you need them the most, you know you can call them and they’ll be there and support you unconditionally. I instinctively purchased my ticket the second they went on sale, almost out of habit, or obligation.
January 29, 2013: Jeff Mangum at Charleston Music Hall, Charleston, SC
I attended the Charleston performance at The Charleston Music Hall, looming above the stage in balcony seating. Mangum emerged long-haired and bearded to thunderous applause, sat alone on a vast stage, and encouraged fans to sing along. He was appreciative and polite, succinctly introducing a few songs. While the setting was reverent, I felt so disconnected, couldn’t feel the power of it—Mangum’s voice and acoustic guitar were drowned out by belting fans and the drunk girl next to me arguing with her boyfriend. I wanted it to be like 2008 at Cine in Athens when I stood just a couple of feet in front of NMH’s Julian Koster, performing as The Music Tapes, as he sang without a microphone and engulfed the room in a raw clamor, resulting in the most powerful performance I’ve experienced. While Mangum’s lyricism is cited as the driving force of NMH, it was always Scott Spillane’s horns, Koster’s singing saw, and Jeremy Barnes’s sloppily frenzied punk-rock-house-party drums that got me bleary-eyed and dancing in my teenage bedroom. As Drunk Girl sloshed some beer on me and the audience screamed with delight as Mangum held a note for an impressive while during “Oh Comely,” I vowed that if I were to see NMH in any incarnation again, it would have to be full band (aka, when hell freezes over).
Then one day, I turned on my phone to a flood of all-caps texts from people I used to go to shows with and friends who knew how much the band meant to me—a reunion tour had just been announced. I marked my calendar for the day tickets went on sale, watched the clock and refreshed the page for the October 22nd 40 Watt Club performance—before I could click my mouse to purchase more than one ticket, it had sold out. There were tickets on eBay going for thousands of dollars.
October 22, 2013: Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power at The 40 Watt Club, Athens, GA
Months later when the time had come, I was apprehensive as I drove alone to Athens. I didn’t listen to On Avery Island or In the Aeroplane over the Sea or the years-worth of bootlegs I had on the drive. In fact, I hadn’t listened to them—except when “Holland, 1945” would come on some bar’s Pandora station—since hearing them live at Mangum’s solo show. They are difficult to listen to, laden with the deaths and milestone events they guided me through. I planned to treat the show like a “closing of the vault,” a decade-long relationship that I would finally experience in its “truest form,” and have some closure.
Showgoers, picking up their will-call tickets, snapped photos of the 40 Watt’s marquee. With Elf Power opening, it was a blast from the past, a repeat show for the legendary Athens venue. The room was peppered in flannelled, bearded, and bespectacled locals, E6 musicians and other folks I recognized or knew from Athens bands, and the atmosphere was extremely relaxed, yet pleasantly excited. NMH’s Spillane was outside, talking to friends next door at Flicker Theater. There were no long lines or swarms of scalpers as I expected–it was just another night at the 40 Watt. It was Neutral Milk Hotel’s first of three consecutive shows in their hometown, and it really felt like a homecoming as they and Elf Power milled around the venue, shaking hands with old friends and collaborators.
Elf Power, perhaps the most prolific Elephant 6 group with 15 LPs and a collection of EPs and singles, kicked off the night with new material and old favorites. I was a little late to their set but got to catch such highlights as “Lift the Shell” from 2013’s Sunlight on the Moon and “Step Through the Portal,” the opening track off their definitive 1997 release When The Red King Comes. I’ve seen the band several times and enjoyed the care in this set, a blend of characteristic pop meditation when they slowed it down and pure collaborative energy when drummer Eric Harris kicked up the tempo. I didn’t have the best view as a shorter person standing in the dead-center of the room, but I could see Rieger smiling over at Elf Power co-founder and sometimes-Neutral Milk Hotel member Laura Carter on Moog keyboard and horns. Seeing the marquee outside was a surreal experience for him, too: “It’s like déjà vu all over again!” he laughed between songs.
My friend Elena and I got another beer and steadied ourselves for Neutral Milk Hotel. When Mangum took the stage, the crowd erupted in applause and I was lurched forward. He picked up his guitar and launched the set with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s “Two-Headed Boy.” Maybe it was knowing that his bandmates were close by, but I was already moved in the way in which I’d wanted to be for the solo tour; there was Mangum, on a stage he’d played over and over again, looking out to familiar faces. He was confident, right at home. His strummed his guitar with unapologetic intensity; you could feel the bass tones in your gut, feel the scorch in his throat as he shout-sang, joined by the crowd, “I am listening to hear where you are.” I looked around me as fans grinned, fixated on the stage still not believing what they were seeing, holding hands and wiping their eyes. My jacket cuff was soaked as I uncontrollably wept from the power of it all—I hadn’t braced myself for the moment. Seconds in, and I knew this was the way I had always wanted to hear it.
Mangum was joined by Koster, Barnes, Spillane, and a small horn section as “Two-Headed Boy” seamlessly bled into the instrumental “The Fool.” The funerary harmonies of the horns glided over the shuddered jangle of Barnes’s tambourine and bare bass drum, but promptly brought the energy back with “Holland, 1945,” and the band quickly slipped from Pitchfork Darling Demi-Gods to That Band That Played the Best Folk Punk House Shows in Athens in the ‘90s.
The first three songs were ordered just as they were on Aeroplane (tracks 4, 5, and 6), and filled the room with an eerie electricity. Hearing these 14-year-old renditions, with the original Aeroplane lineup pouring themselves into their instruments, was like stepping into the center of the album and experiencing the flow of the record as many of us had first experienced–the way the songs fit together, gloomily saunter, then escalate, rattle and ignite.
While In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is considered Mangum’s magnum opus, I was thrilled to hear tracks from Aeroplane’s overlooked predecessor, On Avery Island, as well as early releases and songs that, until 2011’s Walking Wall of Words box set release, were only available as bootlegs on forums. “A Baby For Pree” grew into the blissed-out “Everything Is” from NMH’s first EP, and fan favorites like the slow-burning, fuzzed and Moog-straining “Ferris Wheel on Fire.” It was a genuine treat to hear “Ruby Bulbs,” one of NMH’s sparest songs, in which Mangum wails strange romanticisms (“I need to taste your voice in my mouth,” “I need to paste your skin around the mailbox/and hold the postman in your smile”) over one hypnotically strummed A chord and Barnes’s drums crash over the mix in brilliant tumultuousness. “Snow Song Pt. 1,” another rare beloved track, followed.
The crowd expectedly roared and raised their lighters for “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Elena and I linked arms, audience rows threw arms around one another’s shoulders, and couples pulled each other close as the whole venue swayed slowly together. Spillane coaxed everyone to sing along, grinning through his thick beard and mustache as he closed his eyes and sang along as if it were a hymn.
After encoring with the singing saw-driven, pure punk-rock backboned folk tale “Ghost,” the jubilant all-instruments-on-deck “Untitled,” Aeroplane’s “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2,” and the sweet children’s song “Engine” (often referred to as Mangum’s “Yellow Submarine”), the crowd spilled out of the venue and dispersed to various little bars around Washington Street. I dashed outside to call an old friend with whom I attended many an Elephant 6 family show. I’m not even quite sure what I said–it still didn’t feel like what had just happened had actually happened–but somewhere in there, I obtained a ticket for Sunday’s Atlanta show.
October 27, 2013: Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, and Robert Schneider at The Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA
Atlanta’s show took place at The Tabernacle, a significantly larger venue than the 40 Watt Club (2,600 capacity to 40 Watt’s cozy 500). After waiting in a line that wrapped around two blocks, Robby and I found a place close to the stage in the pit. I was immediately struck by the difference in the crowd’s energy. Though we’d waited alongside a few guys in their fifties proudly sporting “Elephant 6 Recording Co.” t-shirts, the average age was probably around 21, 22–significantly younger than Athens’s crowd of friends and townies. The excitement was heightened in a way that was incomparable to Athens, though, and I found myself catching the unapologetic thrill as well. Who knew when, or if, this would happen again?
Robert Schneider, producer of In The Aeroplane Over the Sea and frontman of the Apples in Stereo, opened the evening with Ulysses and Apples’ bandmates alongside him. I’d seen the full Apples in Stereo lineup at Athens Popfest 2010, decorated in synths and electro-pop trimmings, so it was nice to see Schneider’s pop gems stripped down to a couple of acoustic guitars, vocals, and a hint of percussion. His talented son joined in on tambourine and vocals for the hit Schneider wrote for him when he was younger, “Energy.”
Elf Power was once again on the bill and delivered a riveting set that far surpassed the energy of Athens’s. The band fed off of the crowd’s enthusiasm, and there was a palpable connection between the stage and the floor as harmonies intertwined and musicians traded instruments and egged each other on. The band paid beautiful tribute to beloved musicians lost, covering both Lou Reed (who had died that day; I received word of his death on my drive up) and Olivia Tremor Control’s Bill Doss, who unexpectedly died in July 2012. Some Apples and Neutral Milk Hotel members joined in. Watching decades-old friends join together to perform a loved one’s song was a terribly powerful and beautiful thing. After years of watching these bands perform, I was struck by the sense of community and support as their voices laced through the echoed-and-harmonized chorus of “Jumping Fences” (“we’re living day by day and we both know that this world can make no sense”). I think a lot of the power of these shows for me and other fans is seeing E6 performers, their beards now streaked with grey, the sweaters they’ve worn for the past 20 years unraveling, and feeling that instinctive collaboration. To witness firsthand the genuine elation that they get from supporting each other is a privilege.
The first floor of the Tabernacle was teeming with the thrill of the wait. From what I’ve read, I gather that Mangum has been very surprised at the overwhelming response to his solo tour and subsequent reunion shows, and the Atlanta performance confirmed it. Mangum and Koster seemed downright dazzled as the audience screamed along “I love you, Jesus Christ!” on “King of the Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2”–as I leapt and ricocheted off of the bodies around me during “King of the Carrot Flowers, Pt. 3,” I caught a glimpse of Mangum emitting rare a toothy grin as the crowd lurched forward, pogoing and moshing to the perfectly-sloppy cacophony. Maybe without looking up at The Tabernacle’s lavishly painted ceilings and balconies, it would have felt like a house show, and it kind of did–there was a new type of intimacy in this set, a mutual encouragement in the celebration of acoustic guitars worn ragged, brass instruments reclaimed, Koster’s splintering saw bow and the way he bends the blade so passionately you’d think he was trying to break it in two. We reeled and caught our collective breath of “A Baby For Pree,” but every so briefly. My glasses flew clean off my face during “Gardenhead,” my lungs ached from howling along, and my nose is still sore to the touch from a rogue flanneled elbow. In the immediate vicinity, there were no crossed arms, and, thanks to a request from the band, no glowing smartphone screens–just a large group of sweaty, grinning kids, getting to experience something they never thought they’d be able to. We danced until Mangum, Spillane, Koster, and Barnes graciously waved goodbye.
At some point in our migration from middle of the crowd to stage left to stage right to directly up against the stage, Robby laughably distilled our mutual years-long fandom to the simple truth of it: “This is a really good band.” There’s no telling what the future holds beyond this tour–maybe we’ll get the new songs we’ve pined for, or maybe we’ll keep hearing the same songs Mangum wrote in a little house in Athens in the mid-nineties. Who knows. For now, Neutral Milk Hotel has dates up through February, the final one at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC, on February 1. The last show or the beginning of many more for a new generation of fans, it is certainly worth the drive.