Review: Neutral Milk Hotel @ The Tower Theater (1/29/14)

Photo courtesy of peterhutchins.tumblr.com
Photo courtesy of peterhutchins.tumblr.com

By Nick Stropko

So, it has happened. Years of anticipation, speculation, and blind hope have culminated, and the day has gone and passed. I have seen Neutral Milk Hotel.

Naturally, I have rapturous praise for the concert. Of course Jeff Magnum’s voice has retained it’s power, its winding intensity, its ability to reach just a little higher than it probably should and sell it regardless (he did have the slightest of problems during “Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 1,” but it really just served to humanize what has become a deified figure). Of course it was gratifying in a way Jeff’s solo shows were not to see the whole band together–Julian Koster rotating in place with his bass and playing the singing saw, Scott Spillane working an array of brass instruments, and Jeremy Barnes frantically keeping everything together. They really nailed the eclectic instrumentation present in NMH records, with the singing saw, zanzithophone, and electronic bagpipe, among many more, making appearances. Of course standing in a room full of people singing along to “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” with Jeff Magnum is going to send chills down your spine. Of course, of course, of course.

However, rapturous praise is kind of boring. Pretty much every account of the show I have gotten has been overwhelmingly positive. Instead, I’d like to offer an array of stray thoughts I had during the show.

  • While Magnum’s voice has certainly not lessened in intensity, it seems like his range has become ever so slightly more limited. I think a few of the songs were played a few steps down, and he reaalllyyy had to strain to hit that note in “Two Headed Boy, Pt. 1.”
  • I can’t really tell if I like Jeremy Barnes’s drumming or not. Maybe I’m just being silly, but it seems like he has trouble maintaining the beat during fills. Is it possible that Jeremy Barnes is actually not a very good drummer at all? Is this just a weird stylistic thing that I’m not grasping? THIS IS OF GRAVE CONCERN.
  • I really enjoy the stage dynamic of Neutral Milk Hotel. Jeff was pretty much unrecognizable–he received no applause when he walked onstage, his mess of hair making him look like a roadie in a fantastic sweater. He spoke little but seemed gracious, maintaining his weird indie god aura while not coming off as too stuck-up.
  • Isn’t this whole tour kind of remarkable? Maybe this is well-tread ground, but I think it’s worth restating every now and again that a band can sell out major venues across the country largely based on the strength of a record they put out on an indie label in 1998.
  • The “Ghost”–>”[untitled]”–>”Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2″ combo during the encore was phenomenal. Phenomenal. When I saw them break out the electronic bagpipe, I kind of freaked out and definitely sang along to a bagpipe part. No shame.
  • Fuck it, I can’t think of anything else that’s negative. It was a really great show, and I’m thankful I got to see it.

If you missed out on Jeff and co. last week, fear not! They’re playing at The Mann on July 21st. I highly recommend you attend.

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