This is the ecstasy we knew would come.
How else to articulate the thoughts of the 1,600 or so fans in attendance at the Neutral Milk Hotel show at Warehouse Live last night? Certainly the full feeling couldn’t be captured in just the lyrics they shouted in unison—so practiced and familiar that they became only sounds, a deafening caterwaul of commiseration that was sustained for the duration of NMH’s set, aside from occasional breaks to catch our collective breath.
A NMH show is the closest thing the indie rock world has to a religious service, and last night’s performance was no exception. Formed in the late ’80s by singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum, in 1998 the band released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a gorgeous psychedelic concept album that ranges in tone from confessional ballads to lush, orchestrated power jams. The acclaim that met the album, and the stress of performance and expectation led Mangum to put the band on what seemed for a long time to be a permanent hiatus.
Then, beginning in 2010, Mangum resumed touring as a solo acoustic act—his last stop in Houston was a show last year at the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater, a much more solemn and formal venue, with the worshipful crowd peppering the space between songs with shouts of “we love you, Jeff!” The audience at that performance was comprised of ardent hipsters young and old who came to bear tribute to a legend in the flesh. This time around, Mangum is back with the full NMH line-up from Aeroplane, which is touring for the first time in 15 years. And this time, thank God (and I don’t mean Mangum), it was an actual rock show. A few people danced, although the sold-out venue was so cramped that even attempting to get drinks was a journey from whence many did not return.
Label-mates and long-time NMH compatriots Elf Power opened the night with an indifferently received but rollicking set. Although the band has released 12 or so albums since their 1995 debut, it was clear from the reception they got that Houston had no use for quantity or consistency. They played an energetic set, reaching back to 1997’s When The Red King Comes for the moving “The Arrow Flies Close” (which last night sounded like nothing so much as the 2001 Jimmy Eat World song “Hear You Me,” but I swear I’m not accusing anyone of anything) and up to their 2013 album Sunlight on the Moon for songs like the confidently bouncing number “Lift The Shell.” They even played at least one song by Olivia Tremor Control, yet another band hatched in the 1990s from the experimental Athens, Georgia–based Elephant Six Recording Company (two of the members of Elf Power are in OTC as well)—the announcement of which provoked no sound from the audience save for my shout of assent. Some of the audience’s sleepiness can be laid at the feet of Warehouse Live’s consistently muddy acoustics, which have dampened many a band’s interaction with audience members who have no idea what’s being said.
Elf Power doesn’t deserve this blasé treatment. Overshadowed though they are by the indie-god status of Mangum and his band, Elf Power brings the sort of locked-in professionalism that bespeaks long years of teamwork. The band looked jaunty and comfortable on stage, employing instruments from 12-string electric guitar to mellophone to zanzithophone to create fun, textured songs that pop in part because of their creative instrumentation. They’ve got all the same warped sensibility of NMH, but, without Mangum’s yelping lyrical delivery to anchor the songs, few in the audience seemed to notice. Still, the energy of their set was undeniable, and as they continued it was evident that small pockets of fans were won over.
Everyone was in it for the main event, though. The 12-year hiatus between the release of Aeroplane and Mangum’s return to touring only stoked the fires of his fans’ lust. NMH shows are reverent in a fashion similar to Florence and the Machine’s – fans make the pilgrimage to offer themselves up to the person who was able to articulate something in them that no one else could. Even as he shuns the limelight, standing to the side while bandmates Scott Spillane and Julian Koster play everything from euphonium and keyboard to musical saw and hand bell, Mangum commands attention with his unrestrained, melismatic vocals.
On “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1,” Mangum’s guitar was mic’d loud, seemingly in preparation for the volume at which the crowd would recite his words back at him. The crowd acquiesced, shouting and moaning joyously through even such endurance events as the 8-minute-plus “Oh, Comely.” The voice of the spectators was unified in a way that’s unique to a concert like this—each person singing along seemed to have grown up with the same loneliness inside them, a loneliness touched by Mangum’s strange, wailing poetry. Now everyone who listened to the album in the privacy of their bedrooms could relive it again, this time with a group of like-minded fans.
I went into the show skeptical. Having attended the last Jeff Mangum show after years of fandom, having “felt the presence” and understood it more as a reflection of myself than something about Mangum, I was left with vague discomfort at being one of the overwhelmingly excited fans who would willingly buy expensive tickets to simply bask in the glow of a hero.
Throughout the show, I wanted to remain partisan, but the magic of NMH’s songs can melt the hardest heart. These fans were not the hipster elite of the show last year; instead, they were everyday listeners, who nonetheless heard the cry of this music and learned to love it the same way others of us did. Riding up to the packed venue on my bike, I felt as though we were all bearing witness to sounds that have been fully absorbed into our idea of American music—even the musical saw employed on songs like “A Baby For Pree” and “Oh, Comely” to create strange, keening waves was met with familiarity and enthusiasm. This weird, rambling band could do no wrong in the eyes of their adoring audience. Deep cuts like “Naomi” and set-closer “Engine” were greeted indulgently, the crowd noticeably quieting down during them but then working themselves back into a frenzy for each new song.
If a NMH show is the indie rock version of a religious service, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is the service’s sacred text. Its true meaning is oblique, mysterious, and shrouded under layers of disturbing imagery. Its creator reacted to sudden fame by retreating into silence, which inevitably lent an air of magic and secrecy to the album. Now we are present for the second coming, and Jeff Mangum has arrived heavily bearded and inscrutable as ever to deliver the songs that we fell in love with in our dorm rooms and cars and headphones years ago.
In the ebullient “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 & 3” Mangum sings “I will shout until they know what I mean”—but what is Mangum to do now that everyone knows what he means? What can you shout when you know you’ve got the ears and attention of thousands? Sometimes, there’s not much you can say except for Mangum’s parting words before playing “Engine” and leaving the stage for good:
“Thanks for waiting.”