Jeff Mangum strides onto the Spokane Knitting Factory stage, unrecognizable from the fresh-faced singer-songwriter of younger years, sporting a bushy beard and pulled-down messenger cap. But immediately starting into “A Baby For Pree,” that voice is unmistakably his own nasally and bitterly beautiful tone. Soon, the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel
joins him under the hot lights taking up trombone, saw, bass, keys and drums. The packed-in room buzzes with human electricity. It smells heavily of garlic and sweat. People of all ages are breathing in the moment, as if it’s the first time and the last time they’ve heard (the sound system is on point about one song in) this influential ’90s band.
And in a way, it is the last time, at least live.
The group announced earlier this year they’d disband and June 9 would mark their final show. Friday night, Lilac City fans witnessed what was possibly one of the band’s last ever performances.
Three songs in, NMH launches into “King of Carrot Flowers” and the crowd goes nuts. This is the first song off 1998’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
, the group’s second and likely final album, and this is the record that people know the best (it is the best). So any time the band plays a song off that work, the audience sing-along begins. Songs from their first album, On Avery Island
, or EPs weren’t as familiar to people.
I want to ask every person wildly singing where they were the first moment they heard this music, and how these strange lyrics changed them. But I don’t; the fact is, this folk-rock, Irish-influenced music has changed people. Even if the band never works again, they'll have that. Intermittently, fans raise their hands to the sky in worshipful reverence, as if to pull the music in through their fingertips.
For anyone who saw Mangum when he was touring solo four or so years ago, this Knitting Factory show, with all of its eclectic instrumentations (this was the first time I’d ever seen a banjo played with a violin bow) is so much more fun and care-free. Julian Koster, master of saw/bass/accordion/keys, bounces around in a circle or sits on the ground and never stops moving, his blue knit hat barely hanging on. It’s clear to be in this band you have to play at least three instruments (except the fiddle player and Mangum, who played guitar), as everyone kept switching it up, even the drummer.
An eight-minute version of the seminal “Oh Comely” has the audience swaying and singing. And all too soon, the act bows and leaves the stage. But it wasn’t over.
Mangum begins with “Little Birds,” the only song written after Aeroplane
that he plays at concerts. It’s quiet and moving. Once the entire band joins him for the final three songs of Aeroplane
, it’s like a match has been lit. It’s pandemonium on stage, with some of the eerie and creative instrumentation sounding like something you’d hear at a modern classical music concert.
It ends perfectly …”Two Headed Boy Pt. 2” with Mangum alone with his voice and guitar.
He says “thank you” after the final notes, bows and leaves. He doesn’t wallow in the moment, that’s our job. The house lights come up and we’re left to wander out into the warm night air reflecting on the miracle we’ve all just witnessed.