Live Review: Neutral Milk Hotel at Sokol Auditorium (and maybe all shows should ban cell phone photos?)…

Category: Blog,Reviews — Tags: , , — @ 12:56 pm March 31, 2014

Neutral Milk Hotel as seen from the edge of the crowd at Sokol Auditorium March 29.

by Tim McMahan,

I have a theory why Neutral Milk Hotel is held with such reverence by so many. In 1999, Jeff Mangum did what Kurt Cobain did in ’94. Mangum turned off Neutral Milk Hotel, walking away from the band after it released its masterpiece, Aeroplane Over the Sea. Shortly after the album dropped in ’98, he did a few shows with the band, than simply…stopped. There was no grand announcement, Mangum just went away, leaving his audience wanting more. And he did it without dying.

What’s the old story about always wanting the girl you can never have? Absence makes the heart grow fonder; while denial makes love that much more intense. Mangum has been around all these years doing other things, but denied fans a performance. As a result, whether he intended to or not, he turned Neutral Milk Hotel into the kind of legend reserved for bands that ended after tragedy. He created a modern myth. Rare is the person who can walk away while standing on top of the mountain; and I don’t know anyone who did it like Mangum.

So, after more than a decade of silence, Mangum came back to life in 2010 with a surprise guest appearance at a benefit concert. That was followed by more surprise appearances. Then came a tour. And then another. Fans who long ago gave up hope of ever seeing a Neutral Milk Hotel show were finally getting their wish.

Omaha fans got their wish Saturday night at a long sold-out Sokol Auditorium show. I saw it with my own eyes: There on stage, singing “Two-Headed Boy” was Jeff Mangum. He looked like one of the Duck Dynasty guys. Actually, he looked more like Tom Hanks at the end of the marathon-running sequence of Forrest Gump — full, graying beard, hair sticking from beneath a Castro hat, baggy jeans, he looked like a recluse who had just rolled out of hiding.

Maybe that’s why they banned the cameras. Throughout Sokol flyers were taped to walls that read, “Out of respect for the artists, no photography allowed, including cell phones.” Sokol’s T-shirted security team watched like hawks for anyone pointing a phone at the stage. When they saw one, they swooped down, briskly pushing into the crowd toward the person taking the picture. In one case, the bouncer firmly shook the flyer under the nose of the scared hipster.

I doubt the photo ban had anything to do with Mangum looking like a street guy. Instead it was about feeding the Neutral Milk Hotel myth. No photos or videos on the web means growing mystery.

So why the mystery? Who knows. Why stop performing for more than a decade? Especially when your voice and your musicianship is in prime form. Mangum sounded amazing Saturday night as he brought Aeroplane back to life on stage, backed by his original band and Elephant 6 compatriots playings horns, accordion, even a willowy, haunted saw.

From my vantage point way off stage left, the crowd reacted as if seeing a ghost come back to life. Fans I spoke to never expected to see this band play again, let alone play in Omaha. And here they were, playing their best songs spot-on with every nuance from the original recording. It was a dream come true, but not for me. I’ve only been a passing Neutral Milk Hotel fan, having come to the party long after it ended. There’s no denying that Aeroplane is a modern indie-rock masterpiece, its influence can be heard on every Arcade Fire, Decemberists and Bon Iver album, though no band has ever quite matched the album’s twisted lyrical genius.

Maybe that’s another reason Mangum disappeared. He knew he’d never be able to recreate the magic of Aeroplane. Just thinking about it may have driven him mad. Why even try?

Saturday night’s setlist is online right here. Despite everything he’d seen and heard that night, the guy next to me was disappointed they didn’t play his favorite song, “Communist Daughter.” Maybe next time, I said, if there is one. Something tells me there will be.

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One other aside about last Saturday night’s show: The photography ban (including with cell phones) changed the tone of the audience and maybe the performance. Instead of seeing a sea of lights held overhead throughout the set, Mangum and Co. were treated to a crowd that danced and writhed with ecstasy, a crowd of people who were paying attention to what was going on in front of them. There no longer was a need (or an ability) to shoot a photo, no need to post it to your Facebook or Instagram or Twitter account. The only thing left to do was to pay attention and enjoy the show. It was a like watching an audience circa 1999, back when we all did just fine without texting and Facebook and cell phones and the endless electronic distractions that get in the way with living our lives…

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2014 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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