As a journalist, especially as one who focuses primarily on culture, it can be difficult to stick to the ideals of rigid objectivity that characterize good reporting. Unless you’re writing a just-the-facts-ma’am piece about, say, a fire, your feelings on your subject matter will tend to show up, subliminally or otherwise.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s performance at Iron City last night is one example where any attempt at objectivity really is fruitless. While in theory I should be writing for the mythical Average Joe who somehow decided to see an obscure band with a devoted following, the fact of the matter is that the average person in attendance didn’t show up for objective reasons. They came because a little over 15 years ago, frontman Jeff Mangum wrote singularly honest, heartfelt and imaginative music that still helps the people it finds in difficult times. Their faith that his music and his performance would hold up after the long hiatus was rewarded with perhaps the best show Birmingham is going to see this year.
After a strong opening set of psychedelic rock from Neutral Milk Hotel’s old friends in Elf Power – which, in a pleasant surprise, featured “Jumping Fences,” a stone-cold classic from fellow Elephant Six act Olivia Tremor Control – Jeff Mangum walked out alone to a raucous, supportive and very, very packed house. Looking like nothing so much as indie rock’s answer to Duck Dynasty’s Uncle Si, Mangum played a bare-bones version of “Two-Headed Boy,” setting the tone for an exhilarating, emotionally taxing evening.
Once the full band arrived on stage, the setlist stuck to the tried-and-true “shut up and play the hits” approach, as the band played nearly every major song from 1996’s On Avery Island and 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, along with a few deeper cuts like “Ferris Wheel on Fire” and “Snow Song, Pt. 1.” As extraordinary as Mangum was – more on which later – his band more than held up their part of the bargain. Old partners Scott Spillane and Julian Koster (using some characteristically odd instrumentation, like old-timey horns and singing saws) lent the proceedings the same ethereal atmosphere as Neutral Milk Hotel’s immediately distinctive records. Drummer Jeremy Barnes played so expressively and powerfully that the latent punk rock anthems in “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2” and “Holland, 1945” shone through, while “[Untitled]” became, of all things, a cathartic dance number.
But the star of the show, of course, was Jeff Mangum. While his ability to hit every note has diminished with time, his voice is still as authentically emotional as it ever was, sometimes carrying the concert during songs the audience was less familiar with. On those songs – which included most of On Avery Island’s highlights, like “Naomi” and “A Baby for Pree” – his ability to wring the greatest possible emotion out of stray notes somehow turned a claustrophobic, occasionally obnoxious crowd into an intimate, solitary experience. And while the performance was predictably short on banter from the reclusive artist, it was long on grace, as Mangum evinced all the endearing gratitude he showed on his 1997 performance on Live at Jittery Joe’s.
Those elements all cohered when, after maybe the shortest encore break in the history of music, the band returned to play the closing suite from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. As engaged as the crowd was, the show never quite became a sing-along, as happened at the Mountain Goats’ June show at Bottletree; as loud as the crowd was, it was never quite a rock show. Instead, it seemed that each individual was spirited away to however they felt when they appreciated the honesty and the power of the band for the first time. With an audience that seemed to be momentarily lost in reflection and emotion during “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2,” it was a perfect choice to close with the lullaby “Engine,” which Mangum once wrote to curb his own depression.
No, people didn’t show up to Iron City last night for objective reasons. For the most part, they showed up because at some point in their lives, they’d had fears, or doubts, or wounds, and Jeff Mangum’s music had helped to soothe them. Whether an attendee was a confirmed disciple or a new convert, there’s no doubt that the show was everything a Neutral Milk Hotel fan could have wanted. The band gave everything they had, and the waiting, at long last, was over.