On Wednesday February 6th, hundreds of music fans’ dreams came true at the Strand Capitol in York City when Jeff Mangum, the lead singer and guitarist of 90’s alternative group Neutral Milk Hotel (NMH), stepped out of the shadows to perform in one of only a handful of appearances since the band’s break up in 1998. This gathering of a thousand or so people is something that could truly be called a once in a lifetime opportunity as it has yet to be confirmed if the band will get back together, or even whether or not Mangum will ever tour again. Those present can consider themselves lucky.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s name was first heard in 1994 with the release of the band’s four song EP, “Everything Is.” The first full length album came in 1996 and was called “On Avery Island,” though the best known and most critically acclaimed album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” didn’t come until 1998. The band’s iconic sound, most noticeably their incorporation of fuzz bass, has lead them to sell over 300,000 copies of their second album and gain a rather impressive cult following.
Mangum’s performance was preceded by a New York City based band named Tall Firs which consists of Dave Miles and Aaron Mullan. They employed an interesting combination of guitar and harp that I had never heard before. While the band was nothing to scoff at, it was easy to tell that the audience was impatient to witness the real reason that hundreds poured into York on a Wednesday night: Jeff Mangum.
The stage was set simply with only a microphone, a chair, and a guitar stand holding three guitars. When Mangum finally came out in a baggy sweater and a beard most men would envy, he appeared infinitesimal on the large, mostly empty stage. However, as soon as he opened his mouth, he filled the hall into every corner and nook. He began the show with the song “Oh Comely,” the eighth track off of the album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” This eight minute masterpiece was a perfect opener for his show. Without speaking, he went straight into the song “Two-Headed Boy,” the fourth track on the same album. It wasn’t until after this second song that he finally addressed the audience, coming off not pretentious, but rather grateful and even somewhat shy. He introduced his next song, “Gardenhead/ Leave me Alone,” the eighth track off of “On Avery Island.” The more Mangum played, the more he seemed to relax in front of the crowd. His next song, “Ferris Wheel on Fire” was only released on his box set, so it received a rather selective reception, but was made up for with the next two songs, especially when Mangum encouraged the audience to sing along. He launched into “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1,” the first track off of “Aeroplane.” The crowd went even crazier when he continued right into “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 &3.” I myself screamed like a little fan girl with his next song, my personal favorite, “Holland, 1945,” the sixth track off of “Aeroplane.” For his eighth song, he took a break from his own work to beautifully cover Roky Erickson’s “I Love the Living You.” The next two, “Oh Sister” and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” were also only released on the box set. Between those songs, though, Mangum was bombarded with questions from the audience. One spectator asked him “How long did it take to grow that beard?,” which he hilariously misheard as “drink that beard.” With the introduction of “Songs Against Sex,” from “On Avery Island,” one of the audience members asked Mangum if they could stand, and with his reply, “Sure. I don’t care,” the seated venue became a standing venue in a matter of minutes as people poured towards the stage. As he finished his set with “Ghost,” the ninth song from “Aeroplane,” the sound of people singing along was almost deafening. As he walked off of the stage those who had remained seating stood to give this music icon a much deserved standing ovation. The applause lasted for a good minute after he walked off of the stage, and was apparently enough to coax him back on for his final and arguably most well-known song, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” the third and title track from “Aeroplane.” I think even the most stubbornly silent spectator was singing along. He finished the song, thanked the audience greatly for being there, and walked off the stage. As I left the venue, I knew this was a memory that I would carry with me for the rest of my life.