neutral milk hotel live review

Neutral Milk Hotel Live Review | Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, Ponte Vedra, FL | May 7, 2015

by • May 15, 2015

Jeff Mangum, lead singer and songwriter for iconic ’90s lo-fi legends Neutral Milk Hotel, stood by reverently as his horn section blended harmonies with a saw and an accordion. Mangum slowly yet impetuously tapped his heart with an open palm like a maestro fully in tune with his orchestra. It was a gesture that silently spoke volumes about Neutral Milk Hotel’s astonishingly tight show at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall on a recent Thursday night.

The fact that there was a show at all is a minor miracle for fans of Neutral Milk Hotel’s seventeen year old sonic orgasm, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The band broke up shortly after the album’s release, and lead singer Jeff Mangum largely disappeared from the public eye; but Aeroplane is one of those Big Lebowski-esque works that only gains momentum with time.

Which could have meant sold out concert halls for the nearly two decades between the release of their masterpiece and this recent appearance in Northeast Florida. But that is not the path that Mangum chose. He and his band took a fifteen year hiatus before reforming on a limited basis in 2013. Yet on that brisk Thursday night they sounded like a group that practices together on a daily basis and plays two hundred shows a year. That is why such a tight show left an indelible mark on those of us worshipping at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall–a venue that further accentuated just how special the night turned out to be.

One might expect to see a singer-songwriter or folk act in the friendly confines of the former church well south of Jacksonville’s beaches on A1A. But a seven piece band with horns seems better suited for an amphitheatre. Again, that’s not how Mangum wanted it. His voice could fill a much larger space. It comes from somewhere unseen. A Louisiana boy by way of Athens, Georgia, Mangum’s wail is as impassioned as any red-clay raised Southern Soul singer. Every lyric feels carefully constructed and every enunciation intentional.

All the while, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Swiss-Army-Knife-of-a-lineup harmonized with Mangum’s voice in the former church. Whether it was lead guitarist/horn player Scott Spillane’s mellophone, or Julian Koster’s saw, or the violin that was hauntingly played during the encore, someone’s instrument was in tune with and accentuating Mangum’s voice throughout the set.

As Jeff Mangum accomplished during his last trip through Florida, the initially rowdy crowd was transfixed when Neutral Milk Hotel hit the stage. Two minutes into the first song – after three instrument changes by Spillane – a concert-goer went crowd surfing. It was a strange moment when juxtaposed with the music, but when viewed as a spontaneous expression of bliss it made sense. We were thrilled to be a part of something historic. This band that took forever off, and says they are going to do the same at the end of this tour, was delivering on a level higher than any of us could have anticipated.

A similar scene recreated itself later, this time with Mangum playing his acoustic guitar solo, those bone-chilling vocals and poignant lyrics on full display. This time, however, our hero crowd surfer was gently put down after just a couple of handoffs. Neutral Milk Hotel had rocked us into a trance. We were lip syncing reverently along with lyrics like

“What a beautiful face I have found in this place/that is circling all ‘round the sun/What a beautiful dream that could flash on the screen/In the blink of an eye and be gone from me.”

It became clear in that moment why Jeff Mangum never wanted to be a rockstar on the level that we as a fan base desired of him. The expectations would be too much for most people to bear.

Neutral Milk Hotel makes powerful, moving, transcendent music. Horns blending with an accordion and a synth and guitars and drums and violin and that heart melting wail; and all of it results in a melodic cacophony that sounds unlike any band now or since. On that night we witnessed what may be a swan song for an absolute treasure of recent musical history. A truly rare collective of talent that may not have been on the same page all the time, but when they were, the result was teleportation to a place where rules are broken with blissful results.

Neutral Milk Hotel Live Review by Jason Earle.

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