Sunday, May 25, 2014

February 4, 2014: Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel
w/Elf Power
The Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
February 4, 2014

I never thought I’d get to see Neutral Milk Hotel play live, much less recommend sweet potato fries to the saw player.

But let's start from the beginning. The year was 2004, my best college buddy loaned me a stack of CDs he rightly considered essential. Wilco’s Being There, Neil’s Harvest Moon, Modest Mouse’s Lonesome Crowded West—albums I now consider favorites but at the time only had a cursory familiarity. With them was a disc called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Neutral Millk Hotel’s magnum opus might have been the last of the stack I spent time with, and it was the hardest sell. I initially recoiled at Jeff Mangum’s air-raid siren singing and the splintery guitars and sadsack horns that blasted like Pamplona toros across the record’s forty minutes. But over time, I grew enamored by those twisted anthems and can recall a weeks-long period where it was the only thing I played.

Jeff Mangum disappeared from the public eye in 1999, spending the next decade in reclusion while his records, especially Aeroplane, achieved classic status. So when he reemerged sometime in the late 2000s via spot appearances with cohorts from his Athens-based Elephant 6 coterie, his fanbase clamored for new music and live appearances. While Mangum, to my knowledge, has yet to reveal any new songs or suggest that any exist, he has toured extensively since early 2013. After a string of solo dates (I caught his Charleston stop from the front row!), news once thought impossible broke: Neutral Milk Hotel would tour. This wasn’t just a scattered constellation of dates, either. An expansive world tour would take the band around all of the country and most of the world. I guess ten years in the shadows gives you that travel itch.

With no dates closer to Charleston than Asheville, I opted for their stop in Nashville. I snagged a ticket for the band’s February 4th stop at the famous Ryman Auditorium—we’ll jump ahead to that night. My seat was at the lip of the balcony, about two sections right of center. While I am a sucker for stage proximity, this vantagepoint offered a unique and fulfilling stage view, unimpeded by backs of heads or swaying arms.

I really liked what I caught of opening act Elf Power, a Athens, GA indie act that’s been around for two decades and sounded as tight as any band with that degree of longevity. I’ll confess to exploring the venue a bit while they played, but those handful of songs I caught were memorable enough to play to my advantage later that night.

When Neutral Milk Hotel took the stage, the first thing I noticed was that Jeff Mangum was dressed nearly identically to how he was a year before at the Charleston Music Hall: dull sweater, baggy pants, boots and a flat top cap. Perhaps Mangum, like many powerful men of our time, embraces routine to cut down on unimportant decisions. Or maybe it’s coincidence.

Mangum was joined by the Aeroplane-era lineup that included multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster, hornplayer Scott Spillane, and drummer Jeremy Barnes. A few others cycled in and out throughout the night, including at least one member of Elf Power. No matter the lineup, never did Neutral Milk Hotel sound anything short of explosive. The setlist was not dissimilar from that of Mangum’s solo turn, but so stirring was it to hear Koster’s singing saw warble over the verses of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and Spillane’s horns blaze on “Holland 1945” and Barnes’ drums build to a boil on “Ghost”. One wouldn’t have guessed that this was a band fresh off 15 years of dormancy, for lack of rust or anything resembling decay. Mangum’s voice has deepened a touch with age, but not damagingly so. His ability to hold a sustained vocal note with mechanical precision evoked several ovations throughout the night (as a terribly average vocalist, I can vouch for how difficult it is to hold good notes.)

On the whole, the band was lively and energetic. I’ve always taken Mangum for the stoic and reserved type—I guess that’s what reclusion and a (physically) undynamic solo performance will do for your reputation—so watching he and Kostner pogo during a breakdown like a couple of highschoolers was endearing. Kostner, by the way, was an utter dynamo, shuffling instruments at an exhausting pace. Singing saw, banjo, bass, accordion, chord organ (I think), and I’m probably forgetting a view.

While song of the night might have gone to any of them—”Song Against Sex” from On Avery Island incited an especially palpable frenzy from front row to back—I was somewhat surprised and delighted to hear “Untitled”. Aeroplane’s penultimate track, it’s a proud, explosive instrumental march that feels like a victory celebration under fireworks. The players captured the recorded version’s cathartic jubilance.

One fascinating moment from the evening: an announcement forbidding photography was, of course, ignored, and some cavalier front-rowers brandished smartphones at Mangum, who paid them no mind until a staffer sprinted onstage and aggressively swept his Maglite at the violators. Mangum—mid-song mind you—gestured for the staffer to fall back. Whether he was defending his audience or irritated that the staffer would interrupt the song was unclear, but he clearly wasn’t thrilled with the stagehand. After the song, Mangum even offered a brief apology to those fans, and then made an on-mic appeal to the audience at large. To paraphrase, he said, “I understand why you want to take pictures, but I would ask you to simply enjoy being here and together.” And it actually worked quite well.

After the show, my Nashville pals and I popped into a few honkey tonks, eventually settling at Robert’s for a burger and more than a few beers. We watched the house band blow through country standards and surf rock tunes until last call. Eventually, I spotted a few members of Elf Power shuffle in and park next to us. I found myself standing next to the guitarist, and we smalltalked about the bar band before I finally revealed I was at his show earlier, and garnered some goodwill by namedropping a new song they’d played that he’d written (always listen to song introduction, folks!) Upon learning I was from Charleston, he introduced me to the band’s drummer, a native Charlestonian as luck would have it.

Eventually, Kostner and Spillane joined the Elf Power crew, and the uniqueness of the situation was not lost on me. Here it was, Tuesday night in Nashville at a honkey tonk that wasn’t half full, and two members of a mysterious, legendary band I’d spent the past decade listening to were standing mere feet from me. Only in Nashville? Maybe not, but it certainly validated my decision to make the longer trip.

Perhaps to preserve my reverence for the band, I refrained from interacting with the NMH representatives, excepting for one moment when Kostner wondered aloud, “Should I get the regular fries or the sweet potato fries?”


Two-Headed Boy
The Fool
Holland, 1945
A Baby for Pree / Glow Into You
Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
Everything Is
The King of Carrot Flowers, Part One
The King of Carrot Flowers, Parts Two and Three
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Ferris Wheel on Fire
Oh Comely
Song Against Sex
Ruby Bulbs
Snow Song, Part One

Two-Headed Boy, Part Two

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

February 2, 2014: The Pixies

The Pixies
The Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
February 2, 2014

I have a slightly embarrassing admission regarding my introduction to the Pixies.

There was a time in my life when I was buying music at an unsustainable rate. Not monetarily unsustainable, mind you, since the mid-2000s saw collectors purging CDs en masse in favor of digital music, which allowed me to rake in stacks of essential CDs at about $5 a pop. The unsustainability stemmed from the volume and mild discretion with which I acquired it, snagging up records by any band of whose reputation I was aware, whether or not I had an inkling as to their sound. My desire to familiarize myself with as much good music as possible has always been a driver, and at the time I dreaded not being able to participate in informed discussions with peers whose horizons were broader than my own. By now I've reached a point where my tastes meander where they will, but back then, it was more about filling in the many gaps in my repertoire.

The year was 2005 and I was flipping through the used section at 52.5 Records or Millennium Music or Manifest Records (only the latter of which has lasted) and came across The Pixies' Bossanova. The Pixies were the perfect example of a band I knew I should know, but didn't. It feels bizarre that less than a decade ago I was so unfamiliar with such an important band, but that's where I was.

This was pre-smartphone, so I was unable to execute a quick background check. But I couldn't shake the feeling that this record was part of some experimental synchronized 4-disc release I'd read about. If that sounds a lot like the Flaming Lips' Zaireka that's because it's exactly what I was thinking of. Yes, I was underschooled to the point that I was confusing the Pixies with the Flaming Lips (a band I would fully embrace a few months later.) But I bought the record anyway, and on the drive home slid it into my console CD player. The first song is surf rock instrumental "Cecilia Ann". Hm, no lyrics. Guess I was right! I ejected and cased the CD, and didn't listen to it again until I realized my mistake some months later. Bossonova is now my favorite Pixies record. I always laugh to myself when I think about that bungle, but also feel a bit nostalgic for that exciting time when I could discover an essential act seemingly each week.

I've never been quite as infatuated with the Pixies as I've been with a lot of bands, but that isn't to say I'm not a card-carrying fan. I mentioned my affinity for Bossanova, and I think Dolittle is deserved of all the praise it's received in recent years. The only of the three other Pixies records I own is Surfer Rosa, which I like but have a hit-or-miss familiarity. (By the way, it it just me or has "Where Is My Mind?" become ubiquitous in the past few years?) This may explain why I was somewhat on the fence about attending The Pixies stop in Nashville that fell during a recent visit. There were a few factors dissuading me: it was Super Bowl Sunday, I'd be visiting the same venue two days later for a Neutral Milk Hotel show, and tickets were a staggering $70. But my hosts were attending and as a Redskins fan, the Super Bowl is basically an abstract concept, so I took the plunge. As it happened, my seat—purchased three months after my pals—was about ten feet from theirs. I was able to sidle over and watch the show with them. Meant to be, I suppose!

This was my second trip to the Ryman, bookending a seven and a half year gap. My first experience was a Ryan Adams and the Cardinals show in 2006. The place looked no different from how I left it, which is unsurprising for such an historical venue. Having truly delved into old school country in the past few years, it was easier to appreciate the stylized portraits of Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb and other country legends who used to perform at the Ryman when it housed the Grand Ol' Opry. The auditorium itself is an old church, beautiful and rustic, sporting pews instead of theater seats. The balcony reaches over much of the floor seating, and the locals tell me it's almost preferable to sit upon high. As a bit of a seat snob, this assuaged my concern that my back row balcony seats would yield an underwhelming experience. So while I'd still have preferred a near-stage floor seat, I certainly felt satisfied with my view.

The opener was Cults, one of those latter-aughts New York City indie pop bands that all kind of run together in my mind. But lead vocalist Madeline Follin's voice, drenched in reverb as it was, is powerful enough to distinguish her from the doe-eyed indie girl archetype. To paraphrase a Tom Waits line, her voice sounds like electric sugar, but a dash of sultriness fortifies her delivery. Guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Brian Oblivion—the other half of the original duo that's now expanded to a five-piece—handled most of the banter, offering jokey mid-song updates on the Super Bowl ("I think we can call this one for Seattle") and making sure to mention how floored they were to be opening for the Pixies at the Ryman just three years after breaking out. Well, sure.

Then it was time for the Pixies. I always get a rush the first time I see an iconic figure in person, and Frank Black's entrance made for no exception. Frank took the stage with longtime bandmates drummer David Lovering and guitarist Joey Santiago, and new bandmate bassist/vocalist Paz Lenchantin. Alas, Kim Deal's been an ex-Pixie for a year now, but I thought Lenchantin (Deal's second replacement) did a phenomenal job in her stead. A talented multi-instrumentalist and veteran of numerous prominent rock acts, Lenchantin captured Deal's vocal style so perfectly that casual fans unfamiliar with the band's personnel may not have known the difference.

My question: how the hell can Frank Black still sing like that? How do his vocal chords not resemble pumpkin innards (seeds and all) with all the screaming he's done for the past 25 years? However he's maintained his chops, the Nashville crowd appreciated his efforts that Sunday night. After all, would it really have been "Crackity Jones" if Black wasn't delivering the titular lyrics in that ragged shriek?

Looking back at the setlist, I'm a little surprised to see that they played 33 songs, which speaks to the fact that I'm not as comfortable with the Pixies' full catalog as I thought I was. Still, a stretch of seven Dolittle songs was a real treat, and found therein was song of the night "La La Love You". It's not the one I'd have expected to stand out, but it's such a charming and strange tune that it stood out from all the ragers in a real refreshing way. And Lovering's extended, a cappella refrain of "All I'm askin', pretty baby / La-la-love you, don't mean maybe" got one of the night's best crowd responses. But I won't sleep on "Velouria", my personal favorite Pixies song that was finally played as the second of a three-song encore.

Speaking to the level of band/fan interaction: it was minimal. Frank Black's performance felt anything but perfunctory, but I'm struggling to remember if he spoke even one word on mic (outside of a brief, jocular back-and-forth with the rest of the band after a mid-song hiccup—I believe he said something like, "We can just pick up from there right? One, two, three...") Black finally acknowledged the audience at the end of the first set, ambling around the stage sporting a childlike grin, waving at fans like a proud grade schooler acknowledging his family at a recital. I wasn't expecting an abundance of banter, but it's never not a little surprising when an artist doesn't feel compelled to gab with the audience a bit.

After the show, we returned home and watched the Super Bowl on DVR, if mostly for the commercials. Real talk: I thought Bruno Mars' halftime performance was outstanding. After all, the Super Bowl is an event tailor made for a bouffanted pop crooner. But I digress!

Admittedly, I went into this show feeling more than a bit like I was visiting some famous landmark. But the Pixies are just so much better than that and with no perceived flaws in the facade, it was easy to fall under the spell of the energized charisma on which the band built its reputation. Purists may find it difficult to call these Pixies "The Pixies" without Kim Deal, which I understand, but I'd like to think I won't feel compelled to provide that disclaimer when recalling this show. I won't remember it for who wasn't there, but rather for the brilliant songs, the legendary venue, and the fact that I had a far, far better night than the Broncos.


Bone Machine
Wave of Mutilation
Head On  (The Jesus and Mary Chain cover)
Isla de Encanta
In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)
I've Been Tired
Brick Is Red
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Mr. Grieves
Crackity Jones
Here Comes Your Man
La La Love You
Gouge Away
Motorway to Roswell
Nimrod's Son
Andro Queen
Indie Cindy
Blue Eyed Hexe
Greens and Blues
Where Is My Mind?

Planet of Sound