neutral_milk_hotel2– THE ALBERT HALL, MANCHESTER –

Tonight is the second of Neutral Milk Hotel’s two night residency at Manchester’s wonderful Albert Hall, and as we walk to the venue I am engaged in a debate with my friends.  To the uninitiated – me – the Neutral Milk Hotel back-story throws up some concerns.  Said band releases landmark album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in 1998 to critical acclaim, and promptly implodes: in the following years, the band achieves mythic status, based as much on the mystery and enigma of leader Jeff Mangum, who has withdrawn from public life and resisted all subsequent  opportunities to reform his band.   After a 16 year hiatus during which commercial sales of the album steadily increase, they announce a reunion, but offer no new musical output.  Tour dates sell out almost instantly.  I wonder whether, as with so many bands these days, are we here to jump on the revival band-wagon and the exploitation of an audiences who were too young to be there “first time around”?   Is this a cash-in?

The counter argument is put forward by my companions:    Jeff Mangum is a genius, a man who is at odds with the world around him, awkward and honest, a dreamer who harbours a childlike wonder and innocence about life, and who now feels compelled (and finally able) to give exposure to a suite of songs that have become reference for a like-minded audience, most of whom have never had the opportunity to hear these songs performed live.

The debate runs, until the opening song puts me firmly in my place.

Mangum appears on stage with his features almost fully obscured by beard, sideburns & cap, but ‘Two-headed Boy’ is performed solo with a level of emotion that exposes him in other ways.  The vocal presentation is raw, the guitar playing rudimentary, but it is a performance that affects me deeply.  I’m unsure of all the lyrics or the song’s meaning, but performed live it engenders an incredible sense of connection:  This is reflected in the reaction of the audience.  I see people crying, couples hugging, and the usual background chatter at gigs is stilled.  It is an extra-ordinary moment, and I am completely won over.

The song closes to rapturous applause, as the rest of the band join Mangum on stage.  The four-piece band are supplemented tonight on a number of songs with additional horns and accordion, and the sound they generate is both unique and yet familiar, referencing folk, shanties  and “Americana” yet also suggesting more primal and obscure themes:  At any point it sounds like the songs may fall apart, a feeling engendered by the DIY ethic that underpins the band’s sound.  But there is a relaxed yet confident delivery from the band which I think helps Mangum increasingly settle into the event.

The band appear to truly enjoy the reaction of the crowd tonight, which is simultaneously reverential yet joyous. The sight of 2000 people singing “I love you Jesus” in a church-setting is rare in the UK.  Certainly the question of how a band armed with a saw, bell, guitar, harmonica (and includes the owner of the world’s most ridiculous hat ever worn in public) and hailing from the deep south of the USA can move a Manchester audience in an old Methodist church on a Sunday school night is not a simple answer.  It felt like a scene from Elmer Gantry, such was the evangelical zeal of the crowd.   Whether this was due to the release of expectation, the fact that Neutral Milk Hotel had been away for so long, the “other-wordly” nature of the band, or simply that they were swept along by the crowd feeding off the music that they may have thought they would never hear live, I don’t know.  Ultimately it may be the strength of the songs and their delivery, and ‘Oh Comely’ and ‘Two-headed Boy part two’  stand out.

But tonight’s show became an affirmation to me of all that can be good about music, and its ability to connect and resonate with people from beyond its source geography, timeframe or cultural references.  On the way past the merchandise stand, I speak to people probably born around the time the band split, who tell me they discovered NMH after hearing a cover version by Andrew Jackson jihad:  I ask them what they thought and all openly admit to crying during the set.

New generations rediscovering great music and connecting with it on such an emotional level – this is not a cash-in. This is music that deserves to be heard.

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