Local Current Blog

My first Neutral Milk Hotel show: A Millennial’s perspective

A vintage promotional photo of Neutral Milk Hotel, by Will Westbrook. Photography at First Avenue was not permitted.

I’m a little older now than I was the last time Neutral Milk Hotel came to town. Unlike most other concerts I’ve been to at First Avenue, on Monday night I did not push my way to front-center. I was not offered any drugs. I did not drink a beer, nor did I drink too many beers and lose my coat check ticket.

I’m currently 21, which means that I was five years old when In The Aeroplane Over The Sea—which celebrated its 16th birthday the night of the show—came out, and the last time Neutral Milk Hotel played a show in Minneapolis, at the 400 Bar in 1998. (Frontman Jeff Mangum has played Minneapolis since, but under his own name.) Neutral Milk Hotel stopped touring before I turned 10, so unfortunately I didn’t catch them on their first national tours. Monday’s performance at First Ave was an all-ages show, but I still felt like one of the youngest faces in the crowd. Unlike many of the fans at the show on Monday, I don’t remember when the band had their big break.

I was introduced to Neutral Milk Hotel via a middle-school love interest, and I put “Gardenhead/Leave me Alone” on my first iPod in 2005, about the same time I was snatching up my dad’s copies of Rolling Stone before he could get to them, and downloading mislabeled singles from Limewire. These memories are tied tightly to the emergence of my own musical preferences, and a long progression of trying on different sets of ears—one that I’m still not sure I’ve finished.

Even if we were a bit late to the party, 90s babies aren’t immune to the draw of Neutral Milk Hotel. I ran into a friend who’d had neutral milk hotel tattooed on her body hours before the show. I thought of another friend who spent his first paycheck on $200 hand-painted Neutral Milk Hotel shoes from Etsy.

As the screen rose on Monday night, Mangum sat alone, surrounded by horns, banjos, speakers, tools, tables, and what appeared to be a lamb figurine. The band seemed genuinely excited to play together—the instrumentalists mouthed along the words when they weren’t jumping emphatically, and Mangum’s voice cracked with sincerity and enthusiasm at all the right times.

Although it could have been one, Monday’s show was not a lighthearted, nostalgic sing-along. Songs like “Holland, 1945″ and “Song Against Sex” still struck a distinctive balance between anthem and unease—they were dissonant, longing and unruly. Mangum’s voice would be lifted by the horns and drums only to suddenly clash against them. The performances didn’t always match the songs’ recorded versions, but they were faithful to the band’s spirit of deliberate imperfection. In that sense, it was a success.

It became apparent that I wasn’t the only Millennial to be impressed with the band: during an especially long tuning break before “Oh Comely,” a fan shouted to Mangum, “Will you be my dad?!”

In the past year, I’ve seen a handful of the bands I discovered in my junior-high forays into “grown-up” music—Built to Spill, Wilco, Bob Dylan, and now Neutral Milk Hotel. It begets a certain sense of closure; I can finally begin to make sense, and let go, of that part of my life. As the band played, I thought back on the different selves I’d been during my years as a Neutral Milk Hotel fan, and I imagine older fans were left with an even more acute sense of nostalgia.

The band closed the show with what they called a lullaby, a 1998 b-side called “Engine.” Mangum crooned the final line, “…then wake up your windows and watch as those sweet babies crawl away.”

Kyra Herning is a student at Macalester College.

  • Pablo Lousearama

    Minor correction: The song “Engine” was on the b-side of the “Holland 1945″ single, the final NMH release in 1998 (several months after In the Aeroplane Over the Sea album). There’s also a beautiful acoustic version on the 2011 NMH box set. The song actually dates back to the early 90s and has showed up regularly in NMH/Mangum setlists ever since.

    • http://www.twitter.com/jaygabler Jay Gabler

      Thanks for the heads-up, Pablo! We’ve made the correction.

  • Kristen Berger

    Ha! Yes…my friends and I discovered NMH while in college, driving
    from UW-Stout to Mpls to see the show with Elf Power at the 400 Bar. We
    worked at a cafe, and it was a common occurrence then, and still now,
    for “In An Aeroplane…” to be cranked up and heard blaring over the
    sound of the dishwasher in the kitchen, along with any number of
    employees belting out the melody. It’s been an album passed down
    through the cafe generations…

    For this show, 16 years later, my
    friends all had to get babysitters. A couple of my friends hosted Elf
    Power at their house, and posted a photo to facebook of their 3 year-old
    son with the band. I’m so sad I missed out on the reunion, and the
    “making sense” of the time that has passed, the things that have
    changed, and the things that have remained the same.