The mid-90s indie rock group Neutral Milk Hotel may just be the prototypical indie band. It has all the requisite parts: challenging lyrics, eclectic instrumental choices and a cult following. The last part made tickets to Jeff Mangum’s show at MASS MoCA last Saturday particularly sought-after, with tickets selling out not long after they first went on sale. As the lead singer, songwirter and guitarist of Neutral Milk Hotel, Mangum was a long anticipated act for dedicated fans in the Berkshires.
The crowd at MASS MoCA was a show in itself, a forest of slouchy hats and ironic v-necks. Lickety Split served dinner from a special menu, and the museum offered discounted admission in the hours leading up to the show. The doors to the venue opened at 7 p.m., and the show started at 8 p.m.
The first of two opening acts was the band Tall Firs. Their performance was, to say the least, strange. It seemed as though only four notes made up each of their songs and their singing could just as easily have been described as mumbling. After a while, it became funny in a way the band’s interstitial jokes weren’t. It was the kind of monotonous, apathetic music you might hear in a coffee shop. In that context, it would have worked, but as the main focus of the crowd’s attention, it was unsuccessful.
The second opening act, The Music Tapes, was a burst of energy after Tall Firs. The crowd woke up immediately when Neutral Milk Hotel band member Julian Koster released the first wobbling tones from his famous singing saw. The energizing effect was instant, and it was clear from the outset that The Music Tapes were not attached to predictability. The set was at times a circus. One flight of fancy involved a seven-foot-tall metronome and its constructed mythology. It worked – while the seven-foot version basically did what all metronomes do, it also kept things fresh. Koster’s use of the singing saw and his decision to play a banjo using a shredded bow rather than plucking the strings kept the audience awake and the set compelling, and the music itself was fun and highly atmospheric. There was no opportunity to unfocus the ears in this situation, because the entire room was filled with sound: percussion, the saw, brass and strings were all represented – often all at once. By the time The Music Tapes left the stage and the lights went up, the crowd was reinvigorated.
Mangum came onstage and the mood shifted once more, this time to one of reverence. Neutral Milk Hotel released its second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, in 1998 and has since experienced a revival among the current hipster set. That particular subset of people made up most of the crowd at the show, but there were also the original fans, people now mostly in their 30s and 40s. Two such fans stood near me, and when the first notes of songs like “Naomi” and “Two-Headed Boy” reached them, they glanced at each other and nodded appreciatively. Mangum’s shows are rare, and this was the last show on a tour that lasted about a month. Most of the audience seemed thrilled just to be there.
There is always a sense of satisfaction that accompanies a live performance that’s true to the recorded version. Mangum struck a happy balance; the sound was not so close to the recording that the live performance felt repetitive, but it certainly wasn’t rough, or at least not rougher than Mangum’s music tends to be. It was a simple, guitar-and-vocals driven performance that felt intimate even in the large space. Mangum drew from both Neutral Milk Hotel’s albums, On Avery Island and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The audience had certainly studied, mouthing the words along with Mangum’s vocals. When Mangum left the stage, the response from the crowd was loud. When he came back, bringing Koster and his omnipresent saw with him, it was almost deafening. To finish the show, they performed the song everybody had awaited, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” The audience sang along to every note.
It’s difficult to articulate exactly why Mangum’s music has such a devoted following, but this concert made it far more clear: Maybe it’s because he embraces lyrical and melodic complexity.
It is indie music from before today’s indie pretense was cool. Without trying, Mangum achieves what Tall Firs may have aimed for, what so much of indie music seems to seek in its quest for the authenticity: It is transcendent.