12 February 2014

On Being Present // Neutral Milk Hotel

Jeff Mangum via Daniel Coston
So I achieved one of my bucket-list-goals. I saw Neutral Milk Hotel, and it was every bit emotional, moving, and wonderful as I had imagined it would be.

The sort of longing I felt having wanted to see them perform live was palpable at this point. I remember a fifteen year-old me, listening to Holland,1945 for the first time, spinning around my bedroom in circles, wanting to take trumpet lessons, wondering what a "concept album" was, trying desperately to decode the lyrics that might hold some key to map the record. I remember reading the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea 33 1/3 in hopes that some of the mystery surrounding this album and Jeff Mangum's reclusivity might be unlocked, bringing me closer to him and this music I loved. I remember that deep sinking deflated feeling that set upon me when I found out Neutral Milk Hotel was done, that they don't tour, and would not tour again. I remember comparing that very feeling to the way it made me feel learning at the tender age of four that John Lennon was dead, and the Beatles didn't perform together anymore. Utter and complete heartbreak and yearning.

And then, like some kind of miracle, Jeff Mangum came forward, the band was reunited, and they gave a performance that rocked me to my core. Seeing Jeff take the stage in his comfy oversized fair isle sweater, baseball cap, and bearded face, hearing him say hello, hearing that voice in the same room as little old me, it was humbling. He took the stage alone, a triumph for someone painfully shy, and began to play the familiar chords of The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1, just Jeff, encircled by a single spotlight. As he sang, and the song bled into The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2 & 3, the band quietly assumed their positions, horns, accordion, drums, all kicking into together - a moment so profound and beautiful, it gave me goosebumps. And again, a little later in the set, the band kicked in to play the haunting waltz in the latter half of Oh Comely, I found myself moved to tears. Tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of how different I was when I first heard this album, and how much has changed in the last decade. All of it came rushing to me.

But beyond all of the feelings this show made me feel, there was one moment that stuck with me. After the second or third song, Jeff politely yet firmly requested the following, "Please, if everyone could put their phones and cameras away, and just be present with me in this moment." And then the unthinkable happened, we as an audience united in our presence. There were no photographs, there were no phones, just us aligned with the music, singing along with this voice we knew and loved so well. It was haunting and beautiful, comforting and calming, as we were swept away by his musical embrace.

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