Written and attended by Kenny Oravetz (May 31, 2015)
Neutral Milk Hotel was about to start. They were about to play one of their last shows ever. The excitement was palpable. Hipsters of all ages had come from far and wide, filling the room with beards and piercings and denim jackets, clasping tickets they had bought three months prior. The Majestic Ventura Theater had been transformed into the destination of a hipster pilgrimage, and God was about to take the stage.
A voice came on over the loudspeaker, calm, measured, “No photography or video will be allowed during the performance. This includes cellphones.” The lights dimmed and the crowd erupted in a raucous, deafening cheer. A bevy of instruments lined the stage, trumpets, accordions, guitars, keyboards, a pair of musical saws, a keyboard with an illuminated lamb set atop it, a drum set with parchment-colored faces. But for the opening number, all those would fall silent. All energy would come from one man, a man the crowd treated as a Lord that evening.
That man came on stage, emerging out of the darkness to his little corner on stage right. His name was Jeff Mangum. He was heavily bearded, with flowing grey hair contained under a nondescript cap, wearing the hand-me-down styled jacket that was so hip in the 90’s, and that appeared throughout the crowd on this day, lanky white vagabonds eager to emulate his greatness.
And then he sang. He strummed is guitar. All was perfect, his nasal and high-pitched voice hitting notes in a way so much more beautiful, so much more pure and raw than the sometimes-grating recordings of Neutral Milk Hotel. His guitar work was impeccable and complex. And then, lo and behold, the rest of the band emerged, jubilant, already triumphant, accompanied by screams that echoed throughout the theater and drowned out the sound of the music emanating from the stage, picking up guitars and drumsticks along with the tempo. Hundreds of voices began singing along, following Jeff through a medley of popular tracks off of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, the title track blending with “Holland, 1945,” and culminating in a riotous burst of energy that brought the crowd into a shaking euphoria. While initially drowned out by the fervor of his fans, Mangum’s beauteous tones came to ring out alone once the band moved away from material on In The Aeroplane Over the Sea to their lesser-known works.
The crowd’s enthusiasm, however, remained. The band’s virtuosity came onto display. The concert got into its stride, with a flow established where Mangum would start with a slow solo song, such as “Two Headed Boy,” and would then be joined by the rest of the band in a free-flowing jam into other, more complex or energized works, with often such a beautiful effect that tears came to my eyes. Horns matched with musical saw matched with accordion to make harmonies so astoundingly pure and beautiful and unearthly that my brain could barely accept that mere mortals were playing them, live in front of me. Guitars rang out with energizing force, violin cascaded into meadows of poignant authenticity, the drums crescendoed and subsided, and each member picked up a variety of instruments, running on and off stage to create immaculate soundscapes, encouraged by the respectful roar of the crowd after each set of songs.
And then it ended. The cathartic energy of “Ghost” molded into the instrumental excellence of “Untitled” which flowed into Mangum’s solo rendition of “Two Headed-Boy Part Two,” and it was over. The lights came up. Tears filled my eyes. I barely could speak. Those around me whispered, stunned, “That was awesome,” and “Wow,” and “I can’t believe what I just saw.” A reverence filled the room, even more so than when the crowd had entered the room. I hugged my friends, tightly, one of them in a state of tearful, sublime shock. The merch booth was mobbed. I hugged someone else. People smiled at each other, exclaimed to each other about the brilliance of what they had just witnessed. I stepped outside into the night with a smile on my face, and spent the car ride home in jubilant, unbelieving silence, in awe-filled respect of what I had just heard, knowing that nothing could top it, knowing that I had just attended one of the greatest shows of my entire life.