The reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel innkeeper receives a messiah’s welcome at the second of two shows last weekend at Trinity-St. Paul’s.
1. A perfect pairing of performer and venue: Churches are a popular choice of venue for artists seeking an experience more intimate and majestic than the average club has to offer. But in the case of Neutral Milk Hotel founder Jeff Mangum, the decision to book his two Toronto performances this past weekend in the regal Trinity-St. Paul’s Church was particularly inspired. Given that Mangum embarked on an extended, self-imposed exile from the music industry following the release of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterwork In an Aeroplane Over the Sea, and given the preacher-like fervour of his vocal delivery, his first local appearance in 13 years marked the proverbial Second Coming of indie-rock’s most enigmatic icon. When an overexcited fan yelled out “I love you Jesus Christ!” early on during Saturday’s performance, he wasn’t just quoting one of Mangum’s most famous lyrics; he was conveying the messianic anticipation surrounding the event.
2. That voice: Beginning with Aeroplane‘s harrowing folk-dirge centrepiece “O Comely,” Mangum—seated with an acoustic guitar, and surrounded by three others on stands—wasted little time in proving that his decade-plus layoff had no detrimental effect on his powerful pipes, stretching out certain words and vocal sounds until they intensified into disorienting drones that engulfed the room. It was like this church was built for the very purpose of showcasing his voice.
3. The air conditioning: Or, rather, the air-conditioning was very much missed—it was a muggy night to begin with, but those headed toward the balcony seats experienced an oppressive 10-degree jump in heat halfway up the staircase. The sea of waving fans made the crowd look like extras in some courtroom drama set in the deep south; all that was missing was Gregory Peck defending a wrongly accused neighbourhood recluse.
4. Pretty much every song you’d want to hear: While Mangum acknowledged Aeroplane‘s mounting legend by performing almost all of its non-instrumental tracks (as well as B-side “Engine”), he didn’t skimp on songs from 1996′s relatively underrated 2006 debut, On Avery Island, including a spirited “Song Against Sex,” “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone” and a restructured version of “Where You’ll Find Me Now.”
5. A noble attempt at VH1 Storytellers-style audience interaction: Partway through the set, the notoriously shy Mangum surprisingly solicited questions from the audience. In response to the inevitable “have you written any more songs?” query, Mangum confirmed that he has indeed worked on a few in the intervening years, but claimed he had little desire to release a record and deal with “label bullshit.” (Hopefully, someone’s told him about this internet thing.)
6. Effective crowd participation: Though Neutral Milk Hotel’s recordings are defined by their rawness, they also boast a rich, carnivel-esque quality that would seemingly be hard to translate in a solo-acoustic setting. And though he received occasional trumpet/clarinet assistance from The Gerbils’ Scott Spillane and Elf Power’s Laura Carter (who, along with fellow EP member Andrew Rieger, opened the show as a trio), Mangum looked mostly to the crowd to fill in the blanks. That meant “Ghost” was transformed into an ecstatic gospel spiritual through the audience’s feverish foot stomps, while our voices were called upon to provide the ominous foghorn drone that links Avery‘s “Naomi” and “April 8th.” Even the hurried “1,2,3,4″ count-in to “Holland 1945″ became a group effort.
7. The lingering feeling that “Communist Daughter” would’ve been a perfect closer: …if only to slyly acknowledge the beloved Toronto bar that named itself after the song. Alas, it was the one Aeroplane vocal track that didn’t make the setlist cut on this night. However, don’t be surprised if, in the wake of this concert, some attendee is inspired to open up a west-end health-food store called The King of Carrot Flowers.