Neutral Milk Hotel proves its music is timeless in Denver, the city where it was recorded
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.
Illustration by Noah Van Sciver
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.