Rocking the Ryman: Neutral Milk Hotel

Back as a sophomore in high school I came across a very peculiar album cover that had could have well been a classic art piece, if not for the strange bread-like object that had replaced the girl’s face in the artwork. I decided not to judge an album by its cover and went to listen to a couple songs. It was unlike anything I had heard before – eerie, dreamy, lyrically ambiguous, but somehow very beautiful. It was none other than the album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. I would never have guessed that a little over three years later I would watch the band live after their indefinite hiatus.

This was my second time at the Ryman, but this time around the audience seemed more eager than ever to see Jeff Mangum and his crew take the stage. Up until this point, the band had been on hiatus for a little over a decade, spare a live show here and there. However, their current tour features the original lineup from their In the Aeroplane over the Sea album, which was released back in 1998.

They opened with a spectacular performance of “Two-Headed Boy” and moved right along the album with “The Fool” and my personal favorite “Holland, 1945.” The sound was rich and there were several extra band members that played instruments such as the accordion, tuba, and miscellaneous brass instruments. After those songs, Jeff Mangum invited us all out of our seats and to “move closer” to the dismay of the security guards who tried to remove us from the aisles. Also, it is important to note that the band was very strict about no cell phone use, as Jeff said explicitly “let the music unite us, please turn all electronics off.” So unfortunately I do not have any pictures of this concert, but not using my phone really did make the experience all the more worthwhile.

One of the most fascinating parts of the show was watching Julian Koster play his assortment of instruments that I could never actually name by just listening to the songs. The ghostly noises heard in some of the songs were made by a “singing saw” as seen in the video below. In fact, at the concert, Koster was wearing the same hat and Mangum was sporting the same beard, but had a more colorful sweater than the one in the video.

The energy from the crowd was marvelous. I could tell that there were many loyal fans that knew the lyrics to all of the songs. Some songs were quite obscure, such as the song they ended with called “Engine” which was a B-side to “Holland, 1945.” The majority of songs were from “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”, but with a fair mix of tracks from “On Avery Island.” For the entire setlist see here.

Overall, I was thrilled at the chance to see Neutral Milk Hotel. The atmosphere was phenomenal, performance was energetic, and lived up to high expectations. Let’s hope for another album in the works?

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