Concert review: Neutral Milk Hotel at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater

A look back at the Mon., May 4 performance from the beloved indie rock outfit

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It's near impossible for me to remain detached and objective about anything, but the words that come when I think back on the Neutral Milk Hotel show at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Monday evening — overwhelming, mystical, sublime — don't strike me as the biased, hyperbolic raving of an acolyte. I'm not a fan-girl; I merely like NMH. I have In the Aeroplane Over the Sea but not On Avery Island or any of the other releases. I can't sing along with every word. I don't know the names of the band members aside from Jeff Mangum. Yet as soon as Mangum ambled onto stage looking like a relatively well-dressed homeless man — khaki cadet cap, red chinos and blue chambray shirt, long stringy hair and a longer, ratty beard — and strapped on his weathered arch-top guitar and began to sing, I felt myself split open and forth came the flood.

As I wiped away the tears, I wondered if I — if we all; Facebook confirmed I wasn't the only one who spent parts of the evening crying — were getting played here. The mythology surrounding NMH is pervasive, larger than life and seemingly laser-focused to affect self-proclaimed nerds, outcasts and other losers like me: in the '90s, the dubiously sane Mangum, with the help of his band, recorded one of the most critically-acclaimed albums ever, a cult favorite that inspires religious-like fervor in many of its listeners, with lyrics touching upon the holocaust and abuse, suffused with Christ figures and mutants in jars, love and hope and destruction, and then he, the band's heart, brain and soul — virtually disappeared. Not even his bandmates knew what happened or where he went.

Mangum popped up sporadically; sleeping on a friend's couch, as a special guest at a show to sing another friends' bands' songs. There were a string of solo performances throughout the late 2000s, including a set at Coachella. Every appearance came with the fearful whisperings that it would be his last. Such scarcity forces a frenzy, to the point that when a full-band reunion tour was announced, even people like me sat at the computer, refreshing websites until tickets to the closest shows were finally opened for sale. But was the man and band worthy of such hype and unmitigated reverence?

As Mangum continued to sing, his voice filling and reverberating through the entire hall, I knew without a doubt: Yes. And it's easy to take this all one step further, suggesting that Mangum himself is his own type of Christ figure, his return to the stage a type of salvation for everyone in the room that night. How could a voice so large, so emotive, so captivating, not be likened to the voice of God — or, at least, the voice of a god? How could someone singing about fetuses and semen stains be able to hold the attention of hundreds, if not thousands of people for an hour-and-a-half without being more than a couch-surfing recluse with a Peter Pan complex?

His band-mates — Scott Spillane, Jeremy Barnes and fan-favorite, scull-capped Julian Koster, the full In the Aeroplane line-up, and additional players Jeremy Thal and Heather Trost — seemed to agree with my comparison. All are talented multi-instrumentalists with their own musical projects and all shone with veneration and joy as they played their brass, their banjo, their several types of accordions, their musical saw and, when they could, sang along to every word of “Holland, 1945,” “The King of Carrot Flowers,” “A Baby for Pree” and all the others.

For many, music is a religion. Seeing a show is like going to church without having to put on your Sunday best. There's the collectivity of spirit, a coming together of souls, the hymns. Maybe I am being hyperbolic. Maybe we weren't all saved on Monday night. But I guaranteed we were moved; Neutral Milk Hotel and their freak-folk, horn-rimmed, ecstatic music moved us, fanatics and dabblers alike. We felt something otherworldly there in our collective viscera. We left the hall changed, even if only for the rest of the night.

On their website, Neutral Milk Hotel announced this was their last tour for the foreseeable future. Might Mangum and company rise again someday down the road? We can pray.

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