It’s hard, sitting down some hours later after a performance and writing it up after travelling and sleeping; part of me almost wishes I took some form of notes or something for reference but that’s just a ridiculous notion, especially at a Neutral Milk Hotel performance. Once again, I’m not going to be an entirely useful resource to any hard core fans in this post; I’ve listened to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea a tonne of times but I’ve never been hardcore enough to really delve into their older material. For the uninitiated, NMH can only be described as a cult status Indie Folk Rock band from the States; they only ever released two LPs in the late Nineties and only the aforementioned ITAOTS ever truly garnered critical acclaim. On first glance the music is, dare I say it, relatively unimpressive in recording, mostly live takes with varying degrees of fidelity, especially in their earlier work, and lead singer Jeff Mangum’s vocals are not perhaps the world’s greatest; they’re ambitious, quixotic, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t something just incredibly drawing and heartfelt in all of it that’s just totally indefinable. There’s a huge amount of energy and it’s so earnest, especially in the lyrics, it’s pretty hard to avoid getting drawn in just listening to the album let alone the live set.
I actually, for once, don’t have anything entertaining to say about the journey itself; I know, I almost feel disappointed that I don’t have any displays of idiocy for a change, but I came too well prepared this time; I was not prepared to let anything fuck up when the prospect of overnighting in Manchester was merely a knife edge away (which I assume the couple in front of us had to suffer after they discovered they booked coach tickets…for the day before). The fates were with me it seemed and everything went off without a hitch, even if we couldn’t work out how to navigate the damn venue and am apparently completely blind to the giant cloakroom.
I dont want to be too mean to opening act Laetitia Sadier & co., but I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed the performance. I’ve never listened to the project she’s probably best known for, Stereolab, and I don’t really have any intention of doing so following yesterday either. It wasn’t terrible, they were only a warmup act and everyone seemingly except the drummer did seem to be a little nervous, I thought. But it was a stilted performance with each track carved in into its own specific time slot, whereupon there would be a break and the next pretentiously titled track would be introduced before mumbled vocals and generic downtempo guitar was played. There were some grooves and you could nod along but it’s a push to say it was particularly compelling.
And then, after an anxious wait, Jeff finally took to the stage, alone at first, to play “Two Headed Boy”. The consensus was that this was the best way of doing it; open on a great solo track with Jeff, his guitar and the audience and then introduce the rest of the band in logical album successor and wholly instrumental “The Fool”, and it was a potent combination. I genuinely can’t think of a better way to have opened, and the atmosphere was pretty amazing. I’ve been musing on it and the only other show I’ve seen with that amount of directed love is probably Above & Beyond’s live sets, although it’s a very different crowd. It was immediately commanding and with the exception of a couple of tracks I was pretty rapt through the show from that moment on.
I’m only really familiar with their Aeroplane material, and seemingly so were many other people, the crowd being particularly responsive to explosive “Holland, 1945” and the all important title track “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”; the excitement to have the opportunity to see NMH live and get to sing along was palpable and I’m not sure how someone couldn’t grin and sing along, it was infectious (even if you, like me, don’t quite know all the lyrics). That’s not to say the material that people didn’t recognise wasn’t good or loved though; my memory is a bit faded and it was kind of an overwhelming experience but “Ferris Wheel On Fire” was fucking incredible, seriously heartwrenching, and something about Julian and his ridiculous hat and energy playing the banjo with a violin bow, spinning out a delicate little riff, just seemed to put the icing on the cake. I hadn’t heard it before but the studio versions don’t really compare at all. Similarly “Oh Comely”, which is perhaps one of the more cumbersome tracks of ITAOTS, was pretty incomparable; the intimacy of the setting and the heaviness of the solo performance was just really fascinating to listen to.
It’s hard to differentiate some of the tracks, especially when I’m unfamiliar with a bunch; the encore was powerful though, with the energised and strongly rhythmic “Ghost” giving people a second wind in its whirlwind instrumentation; I also feel the need to point out that Julian is possibly the greatest player of the musical saw I’ve ever seen and it came out really strongly on this one where it makes a big splash near the end. I kind of thought the set should have ended as it started with Jeff alone as he played out “Two-Headed Boy Pt Two”, which was very affecting, but it came together nicely in closing “Engine” I think.
A lot of words but these things always ultimately end up being splurges as I try to regurgitate absolutely everything I can remember whilst trying to convey the nature of the performance; I knew it was going to be a good show, I’d heard a lot of good things about their live sets and I was looking forward to it, but it’s so hard to describe how visceral and impacting it turned out being. I feel bad for maybe underselling them in the past because the enthusiasm and sheen of the performance was unquestionable; it seriously makes me wonder how far they could have come if they decided to carry on making albums proper. I’m glad I saw them and I urge anyone else with even the slightest inclination to try as well, I’m sort of at a loss for words on this one.