Words by Lisa Perkins
How long have you waited to see a band? How many years have you spent in the denial phase of grief? How many nights have you wept yourself to sleep, because you know in your heart of hearts that you will never, ever, ever get to see Neutral Milk Hotel play live? I spent about ten years. I remember back in my freshman year of high school when a friend played “King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” for me and my life changed. And in the same breath, she told me they had disbanded.
After that, I had no other choice but to absorb all the Neutral Milk Hotel I possibly could and spend the rest of my days crying. It didn’t take long for the crying to start, considering their discography is comprised of two full-lengths and two EPs. The way the songs bleed into one another is just magical and so extremely satiating. And I have finally gotten to witness this magic live.
“Oh, we’ll get there at 6:45p and we’ll be close to the front of the line, for sure.” NOPE. Hard nope. As my friend and I got out of my car, we were greeted by the most daunting line I’ve ever encountered. The line wrapped from the front of the Crystal Ballroom up and around Scooter McQuade’s. Maybe we should have gotten there earlier. Maybe we should have considered the fact that the tickets for both nights of the show sold out almost as soon as they went up for sale. Needless to say, it was a while before we got indoors, but the Portland Gods were smiling on us and it did NOT rain.
We got inside, secured some beers, secured our pizza, and secured our spot smashed up near the very tip of the 21+ section. From our primo location, it was easy to see that the all-ages area looked like a massive hippie-esque gathering, complete with bodies sprawled out on the ground, ready to camp out the next two plus hours before the real show. Mostly it looked like people were wondering who the hell The Minders were. But, let me tell ya, as soon as the lights went down, everybody sprung to their feet. The Minders took the stage first and they were visibly nervous. They admitted in a very hush hush tone, to the crowd, that they were used to playing at bars and clubs, and nothing like the Crystal Ballroom. Well, we welcome you, Minders. You and your bouncy, summertime, psych-rock sound. You’re welcome here whenever. Everybody loved you.
Moving forward, and getting closer to the greatest moments of my life, Elf Power took the stage next. Their lo-fi vibe was enough to make me miserable that I hadn’t heard them before that night. The crowd sweetly undulated with every flick of the guitar strings. But, that wasn’t enough for us.
Neutral Milk Hotel was set to play 90 minute set list, and literally nothing could have budged me from my spot. You could not have even moved me with a bulldozer. Not on your life, bud. Even worse than my strong will to not budge was the fact that I started sobbing BEFORE they went on stage. And not, fighting-with-my-boyfriend crying, but this-is-the-most-exciting-moment-of-my-life-crying.
Jeff Mangum pulled his grizzly beard on stage and began to play. And that’s when the sobbing really kicked off. The very opening of “Two-Headed Boy” is enough to send anybody into a teary spiral down a roller coaster of emotions. But truly, the most amazing thing about the show, and all of the emotion it evoked, was the set list itself. Now, with limited material, considering their age, they could have literally played every song. In any order… They didn’t do that though. NMH took it upon themselves to let us revel in the anticipation and get exactly what we thought was coming. Much of the set was played in three song blocks that came one after another on their albums. “Two-Headed Boy” led into “Fool” and “Holland 1945,” just as you would expect. The familiarity of the album was right in front of our faces, and Mangum’s voice must have been sitting in a jelly jar to stay that well preserved. The resonance and the lung capacity that spills out of that man is definitely not something to be reckoned with.
Bear in mind, at this point, the sobbing has not stopped. Swaying along with a crowd of dedicated fans and screaming out the lyrics to “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” is definitely something to sob about. But, it gets worse/better. A packed out ballroom waited all night for “King of Carrot Flowers” to come up, and when it did, the crowd erupted, and the floor vibrated. The crowd beamed when Sweet Mr. Mangum asked us to sing along with him. And we did. We sang out hearts out. Straight through parts one, two, and three, and right on into “In An Aeroplane Over The Sea.”
“This song is called ‘Naomi.’” I really thought I lost my cool then, but my friend casually reminded me that I had lost my cool way before the set even started. That is, assuming I had any cool to begin with.
As the night came to a close, there were a few different songs that the encore could have ended perfectly with. And they played them all in a row. “Ghost,” “Untitled,” “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 2,” and they sent us home with the lullaby, “Engine.”
This really was a once in a lifetime show, and the money was spectacularly spent. As I said, both shows sold out almost immediately and I have zero regrets about the forty-odd-dollars I spent. My only issue now is that I don’t know what else could ever live up to that night. How is anything else supposed to be meaningful? How am I supposed to crawl out of this nihilistic pit? Thanks for making me cry, Mr. Mangum. Thanks.