Nearing the end of January, I can say that I attended my very first concert of 2014. I can feel that this year’s going to be a good one, based on both album releases and tours announced so far. This marks the first year of my life that I am without cheap airfare, or Daddy discounts, as I like to refer them as. Maybe this year I will even become an adult… Nah, forget that thought.
This is the second time over the last three years that I have shared breathing space with Jeff Mangum, and third for some of his band members. If you were of the lucky ones who saw Mangum play Trinity St. Paul’s Church in 2011, you were treated to one hell of a show. I am going to show my supreme weak legs to add that sitting at a show is a gift and seeing a show at a church in pews is oddly socially acceptable. Years ago, in the summer of 2008, Johnathan Rice yelled at his El Mocambo audience saying he wouldn’t play to a sitting audience (there was a “fuck” somewhere in there too).
2011 was a special year because Elephant 6, comprised of Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, and Andrew Rieger, to name just a few, played Lee’s Palace. Most fans committed to this show so quickly for the sweet hope that we’d get to see Mangum, funny enough, before the Elephant 6 Toronto gig, Mangum announced a solo tour. The Elephant 6 gig was a long-burn one, but if you were smart enough to endure their 3-hour set, you would have been treated to this glorious cover of Sun Ra’s tune “Enlightenment”:
Rieger, also the frontman for the band Elf Power, could easily be mistaken for Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. Elf Power opened up the Kool Haus gig, which I assume was a recent/unannounced addition, as it wasn’t posted anywhere on the Collective Concerts website. I smartly caught up on some Neutral Milk gig reviews and found that Elf Power were opening. While I only caught five songs, I felt taken straight back to the nineties.
Neutral Milk Hotel promptly entered the stage around 10pm. Within the first few songs, Mangum apologized to the crowd for their punctuality at the 1998 Horseshoe Tavern gig, they apparently kept the crowd waiting until 12midnight for their set. Mangum added, they made an extra effort to be on time for this gig.
I was most excited for the full-band set up to hear the Balkan-style music interludes that were completely lost at Mangum’s show back in 2011. The 2011 gig’s openers were a mish-mash of Elephant 6 artists, most notable in my mind years later is Scott Spillane’s contributions to Mangum’s set. Spillane hopped on stage to accompany Mangum on the French horn, absolutely stunning. This go we were treated to a five or six piece band comprised of Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, Laura Carter and a few others that I sadly cannot pin point for you right now. Mangum was surprisingly hairy, he was sporting a thick, long beard that made most of the bear-like men in the room look clean shaven. His voice was in good shape, I fortunately had a spot far enough back that I could actually hear him and not the sing-a-long crowd. However compromised was my sight, as the venue was jam packed, only leaving the back to comfortably stand, which I slightly opted for, but was also with some late-comer friends. Regardless, I have had the good luck of seeing Mangum ten rows back in a church and his bandmates multiple times up close.
I cannot stress what a spectacle seeing this band is, I am very sad that I didn’t actually get to see much this go. Koster is the finest saw player I have ever heard, which is eloquently demonstrated in the tune “In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea,” as well as some other tunes. He spent the evening between the singing saw, bass guitar, and keyboards, again most missed visually because of my back-of-the-venue spot. It’s so well-done on the studio version, you’d hardly know it was such an odd ball instrument.
Each time Mangum was left alone of the stage, I felt a rush come over me. It was either going to be “Oh Comely” or “Two-Headed Boy.” My favourite performance was easily “Oh Comely” with the band’s appearance nearing the end of the tune, as well as the three-quarter point where alone Mangum taps his guitar between slow sung words. I was surprised in looking back to the 2011 gig that Mangum had opened up with this tune.
Strangely, I began to like Neutral Milk on long runs. I suppose the fast momentum of the first half of In the Aeroplane made me move. Now, to dig deep into On Avery Island.
My good pal and writer for Canada.com put together a super list of Neutral Milk Hotel covers by some of my, and likely your, favourite bands. Discovery of the day for me is hearing Rilo Kiley play “In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea.” Girl power, Jenny Lewis, girl power.
Jesse Lacey (of Brand New) and Michigan’s Netural Uke Hotel kept Mangum’s music alive in the band’s 10-year rest. Lacey famously said he’d quite playing their tunes live, when and if the band got back together to play more gigs. I suppose he’s laid his covers to rest.