Slipping into my questionably legal parking spot, little green machine previewing the night's musical fare at high volume, I pull past a couple of fellas a few years younger than me. They all give me a thumbs up. I give it right back, not caring if it was meant sarcastically. There's no room for sarcasm tonight. Tonight is for merriment, and for the singing of songs: in less than an hour, Jeff Mangum, lead singer and principal songwriter of Neutral Milk Hotel, will be taking the stage at the acoustically stunning Sheldon Concert Hall. I hurry to the big front doors. Inside, a cornucopia of good-looking twenty- and thirty-somethings in their best flannel shirts and smart-looking glasses fill the bar area. The lights flicker to let us know that the opener, Oregon-based duo Tall Firs, is about to go on.
Tall Firs' songs combine the quieter moments in Sonic Youth's or Thurston Moore's catalog with hints of Bon Iver's folkiness, salted with a bit of Bruce Springsteen's grit. The crowd is here for someone else entirely, but the band holds its own with delicate, nostalgic songs. "We passed a lot of billboards and one said there was only one road to salvation," said Tall Fir Aaron Mullan, implying that maybe we were there to give it to them for the drive through God's country. Sleep deprived, I didn't expect their emanating wave of sullen electro-folk to hit me so hard. I float into a few waking dreams as they play their lullabies, and rouse 40 minutes later with Mullan's declaration: "This one is completely different, in that it's not all filled with metaphors for death." Hunh. Could've fooled me.
After a restless, charged intermission, Jeff Mangum steps onstage with an unassuming hello to the crowd. With green military cap atop long brown hair and beard, gray jeans and a Cosby sweater, he looks the part of an indie-rock Jesus—an effect not lessened when he commences the show with one of his masterworks, "Two Headed Boy Part I." The effect is so powerful it’s bittersweet, because "Two Headed Boy" was the first song I ever heard from Neutral Milk Hotel, and I realize as it starts that I'd been counting on the set building up to that crowning moment. Instead, I and everyone else in the completely packed house are brought straight to the heart of the music, thrilling to a cherished favorite song.
As that song ends, Mangum pauses to put us all at ease, giving us permission to sing along with him. Revelation! The Sheldon is a venerable venue for an intimate performance, and we started under its influence. But with Mangum's blessing, we're free to react to these songs in person the way we do at home, joyfully giving our best impression of people trying to lose our voices to such favorites as "The King of Carrot Flowers" and "Holland, 1945." Together we plow through most of The Aeroplane Over the Sea, with a few nods to debut album On Avery Island, and one or two recently released box-set rarities such as "O, Sister." Four songs in, Mangum lets us know that we're welcome to come closer, to hang out with him up front and on the stage itself. The crowd's bravery grows as the night progresses, with Mangum playing the part of singing summer counselor around the campfire. He leads the squeaky wheels with the right dose of grease and indifference when someone gets out of line. The long night only becomes more intimate and more cozy, until finally the crowd, fully emboldened by the encore of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea," sings in a therapeutic bloodletting of some 800 heart muscles.
After a quick thanks for joining him, Mangum quickly but politely departs to escape a torrent of fanboys and girls eager for an autograph, guitar pick or half-drunk bottle of water. Among the seats and in the bar, everyone seems to be hugging everyone else. Ok fine—I get caught up in it a bit too, but it was an unbelievable show, and we shared it together, these songs previously sung only to the dashboards of our cars and the deaf ears of our neighbors in traffic. We were the Neutral Milk Hotel choir for this evening, and our pleasure is evident as we head for the door. Those billboards leading to St. Louis must've known something about the show ahead. Maybe a good show can't cure all the ills of the world, but when a few hundred St. Louisans sang with Jeff Mangum, we found all the salvation we needed.
BY JEREMY PEVNICK