Seeing Neutral Milk Hotel has always been on my bucket list. I thought I was never going to get that chance since they disbanded in 1999. But last year I was happy to learn that the band was back together, and touring again – coming to Raleigh for Merge Records’ 25th anniversary celebration.
The lineup for Merge 25 was stellar – Caribou, Destroyer, The Mountain Goats, Mikal Cronin, The Love Language, Mount Moriah, Superchunk, Hiss Golden Messenger – to name only a few of the bands that performed during the three-day event.
I was only able to see Caribou and Neutral Milk Hotel on Saturday, since I was busy in the afternoon helping out the Merge folks make sure the festival went smoothly.
About 20 minutes before Caribou came on, I slipped into the crowd alone and found myself a spot about four or five standing rows from the stage. I hadn’t heard a whole lot of Caribou, just their song “Leave House,” but I really liked it and was looking forward to hearing some of their other music.
Four men dressed in white sauntered on the stage and launched right into “Leave House.”
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I was captivated by the familiar song, swaying to the beat. As I looked at the other members of the audience around me, their faces all held the same, happy expression I was sure mine did. A guy behind me kept blissfully screaming “Oh my God!"
The music shifted between uptempo beats and dreamlike riffs, punctuated occasionally by lyrics. The sun began to set on the outdoor stage as the band played "Sun.” Dusk was upon us by the time Caribou left the stage.
Margaret Cho took the stage as Caribou cleared off to announce that Neutral Milk Hotel would be coming on next. She reminded the audience that photography was forbidden at the band’s request.
I was pretty disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to take pictures, but figured that would have to be the price I’d pay for finally seeing Neutral Milk Hotel.
By way of apology for the no-photography rule, Margaret Cho bared her tattooed buttcheeks, which depicted two ladies that “look like they’re talking” when she jiggled them. She invited the audience to take a picture of her butt instead. I, uhh, declined that opportunity.
I watched in wonder as the people onstage scrambled to set up Neutral Milk Hotel’s set. An accordion sat on its own table, flanked by a set of three different sized saws resting against an amp. A lighted lamb statue sat near a drumset with a picture of what looked like a saint in the bass drum. Many different horns were brought out, many of which I don’t know the name for.
Sometime after Caribou I was able to move forward two standing rows, putting me just two rows of people back from the stage. Everyone squeezed together, trying to avoid touching each other’s sweaty arms.
Then, right at 8:30, Jeff Mangum walked out on stage alone, carrying just an acoustic guitar and began to play.
As the set progressed, band members entered and exited the stage, playing their parts. A shiver ran down my spine as Julian Koster picked up the banjo and began to play “King of Carrot Flowers parts 2-3.”
The audience sang along loudly with the most popular songs, and fell into a somber silence during “Little Birds,” a slower, unreleased song.
When it was all over after the encore, most people stood staring into space, seemingly digesting what they’d just seen. It was definitely a show to remember, and a fitting way to mark an item off my bucket list.
I couldn’t help but think of a line from “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea:” “How strange it is to be anything at all.”