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Neutral Milk Hotel‘s Australian tour has been almost a mini-festival of sorts, with the legendary band being supported by Merge Records stablemates M. Ward and Superchunk. Both major drawcards on any tour, the two acts providing two hours of solid music to warm up the crowd the had amassed in Melbourne’s The Forum.
With a sound that defies the logical conventions of genre, incorporating influences from a plethora of places and eras, and with a DIY style that set the template for countless future bands, the influence of Neutral Milk Hotel on modern folk and indie music cannot be understated. The most successful, if not the most long-lived, member of the seminal Elephant Six Collective out of Athens, Georgia, Neutral Milk Hotel have a cult following to rival any band of the rock era.
On this tour, audiences have been lucky enough to see iconic frontman Jeff Mangum play alongside the original NMH lineup from the recording of In the Aeroplane over the Sea, including multi-instrumentalists Jeremy Barnes, Julian Koster and Scott Spillane (sporting a beard of pure white that has its own postcode).
Mangum is an elusive, Pynchon-esque figure, famous for dissolving the band in 1999 after the release of their most successful album and basically disappearing for a decade. A time-traveller revered by his fans for his experimental nature and stream-of-consciousness lyrics that are equally profound and nonsensical, Mangum carried an air of tortured genius, and this was the first thought when he entered the stage.
With almost the entire fervent, animated crowd ardently singing along with every single line of every single song, it seemed from the outset that there was little Magnum could do wrong. Despite lofty expectations — this reviewer, for example, has listened to Aeroplane approximately 60,000 times — Mangum and co. outdid themselves in recreating these beloved and overplayed tracks in a live setting.
After kicking off with the one-two punch of The King of Carrot Flowers Parts I & II, they played all of Aeroplane bar, surprisingly, the fast-paced crowd favourite Communist Daughter, as well as a smattering from their first album On Avery Isle and several unreleased tracks. This was less a rock concert and more of an all-out sonic assault, with the players choosing instruments from a vast arsenal, wielding trumpets, accordions, tubas, French horns and musical saws like weapons.
Two Aeroplane instrumental tracks — The Fool and Untitled — were rendered here with such passion, verve and force that they managed to overshadow Mangum’s iconic and effortlessly powerful voice. With the majority of the crowd so well-versed in the recorder versions of these songs, this was a concert all about moments in time. For me, hearing Scott Spillane play the trumpet solo on the 8-minute epic Oh Comely was one of the most meaningful musical experiences of my life, but of course these moments will differ for everyone in the room.
Beyond what mere words can convey, seeing Neutral Milk Hotel perform these songs that I’ve listened to so many times and place so much importance on was an experience far removed from the everyday concert experience. Neutral Milk Hotel have achieved the kind of immortality in their music that few artists can lay claim to, and the unbridled enthusiasm, excitement and love generated from this crowd is a testament to that.
(Photo by Carbie Warbie)