Out of all the bands that launched a reunion in 2013, few generated a bigger sense of euphoria and hype than 90s fuzzy acoustic indie folkers Neutral Milk Hotel. But hype can be a double edged sword. Friends of mine who had seen their initial reunion shows last October spun tales of massive auditoriums where everyone was singing along, people overwhelmed with glee, and generally just a groundswell of euphoria sweeping over the entire building. Everyone I heard talk about the shows were all hype as fuck even long after having seen it.
Maybe I was expecting too much, but this was far from the case when the band played Nashville's Ryman Auditorium last week. The crowd was surprisingly low energy. Near where I sat, everyone was plastered with bored, blank expressions. More than a few appeared totally disinterested, and could be seen noticeably shuffling around, while even more kept filing in and out all throughout the set to hit the concession stands. It was like people didn't know what to do if they weren't allowed to capture the show on their phone or Ipad.
Down near the front there was a little contingent rocking out and really getting into it, and at one point someone screamed out from the upper balcony, "We missed you!" but such displays were few and far between. It's possible that Neutral Milk Hotel did indeed make an indelible impression on this crowd, but it sure didn't look like it.
Which is a shame, because the band's performance was actually excellent. Frontman Jeff Magum, sporting his thick mountain man beard, kicked off the show by playing the magnificent "Two Headed Boy Pt.1" alone on stage. It was only the first song, and I already wanted it to never be over. The aggressive voice of Mangum's crisp acoustic guitar combines with his mesmerizing vocal melodies to create one of the most euphonious sounds in music today. Those divine horns, a staple of many bands associated with the Elephant 6 Recording Company, wonderfully accented "Holland 1945" and "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea."
The bass that propelled On Avery Island standout "Song Against Sex" was obviously less fuzzy, but made up for it by being more propulsive and energizing. Mangum, who is historically known for being introverted, didn't speak much. But he did seem to loosen up a little and at one point even cracked a joke. He asked everyone to set their cameras and phones down, and then said, "if it's really that much of a drag, I'll give you a drawing."
But he had a point. It was nice look around and not see any camera or phone lights in the crowd (even though I admit I take my fair share of pictures at most shows myself). And even though I've dogged the crowd a bit in this piece, there were a few moments where it was splendid to see the way one guy was able to stand on stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar and hold a packed crowd spellbound in the palm of his hand. The hype that follows Neutral Milk Hotel may not be the greatest thing, but the band themselves certainly are.