From the beginning of last night's first Neutral Milk Hotel show in Denver in some twenty years, when Jeff Mangum stepped on stage with his guitar to play "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. I" it was immediately powerful, no nostalgia necessary. Then, the rest of the band joined him, and the show found new richness. It was like when The Wizard of Oz goes from black-and-white to color, from Kansas to a magical fairy-tale land.
When a legendary band gets back together, it's hard to say whether it will draw mainly older fans or if the music has found new appeal for younger generations. In this case, that later group wasn't quite old enough to have seen this band when it played the long gone 15th St. Tavern on the In An Aeroplane Over the Sea tour in 1998. Based on the crowd in Denver last night, it's safe to assume that this band has an appeal that transcends age boundaries.
Several currently famous bands have cited Neutral Milk Hotel as a direct influence, including Arcade Fire, The Decemberists and Andrew Jackson Jihad. What this performance made obvious, though, is that none of them can do what Neutral Milk Hotel did on a few short albums. The band synthesized folk with lo-fi rock and indie pop in a completely unique and compelling way.
It sure wasn't twee. It had a passionate, nervy energy. Mangum made an improbable vocal style resonate with a raw, emotional honesty. And last night he and the rest of the band proved it has no expiration date.
Because he doesn't really sing like much of anyone else -- Mangum's tones and inflections are completely idiosyncratic -- he has an ability to affect people across time the same way that some classic blues singer do. Mangum simply has a timeless expression of feeling. And the appeal is even clearer with his voice cradled in the loving embrace of the contributions of his collaborators -- the original line-up for In An Aeroplane Over the Sea including Scott Spillane, Julian Koster and Jeremy Barnes.
What last night's show made clear was how Neutral Milk Hotel has affected the musical landscape in general. It is in some ways a missing link between indie pop and Americana. That combination makes sense. Mangum spent formative years in Ruston, Louisiana, where he would have absorbed certain Southern sounds. But it may be more important to note that many of these songs were recorded in Denver in a time when both Americana and indie pop saw their greatest period of development. That union was best manifested on In An Aeroplane Over The Sea and was later adopted by bands that have been far more popular.
So getting to see this pioneering band in person must have been a great deal of the appeal of this show to all kinds of people. And NMH did not disappoint. Each of its members played with the passion of someone getting to present the music properly to an appreciative audience. It did not feel like a misguided attempt at recapturing old glory or just an opportunity cash in. When Mangum jumped up toward the end of the show in time to the song, you knew he was swept up in the moment, too.
Even members of opening act Elf Power joined them on stage -- some of its members contributed to NMH recordings. There was a sense of inclusion to match the emotional generosity of the music.
It's rare you get to see an early master of a form of currently popular music. And even if it turned out to be little more than a phoned-in museum piece, plenty of fans of that form, new and old, would happily buy tickets. But Neutral Milk Hotel offered something more, something new for the younger crowd and vindication of the colossal expectations of those who loved the band the first time around.
Bias: I'm a big fan of '90s indie pop, especially the Elephant 6 stuff and to me In An Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of the most important and influential records of the 90s on the current era.
By the Way: Musician Tommy Maley said that the band seemed to be more into this show than the performance at the Boulder Theater the night before.
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