Live Review: Neutral Milk Hotel at 40 Watt Club, Thursday, Oct. 24

The 40 Watt was packed to the gills Thursday for the conclusion of Neutral Milk Hotel’s three-night stand. As it was more or less a locals-only show (slash a people-who-used-to-be-locals-only show), there was a distinct vibe of cameraderie (and, er, draaank) in the air; the band, especially the newly Teen Wolf-ed Jeff Mangum, seemed to respond in kind. Also, it was real sweaty up in there.

The band’s set, which began in solo-Mangum fashion with “Oh Comely” and concluded an hour or so later with the similarly stripped-down “Two Headed Boy Pt. 2” (setlist here) was fast and loose in between; in fact, it got damn near rowdy at points. During uptempo songs like “Holland, 1945” and “Ghost,” Mangum led a spontaneous pogo-dance charge onstage until the whole thing began to feel, well, sorta like a house show.

Here’s how I thought of it (with drunken earnestness) at the time:

In the harsh light of day, I still feel stirred.

All the band seemed beautifully lost in the moment. Scott Spillane yelped noiselessly along with every Mangum cipher, while the eternally youthful Julian Koster bounced recklessly around the stage, his defiant weirdness comparable to, as Blake noted in his review of Wednesday’s show, “a five-year-old who wouldn’t go to bed.”

But much of the credit for that “punk rock energy” should go to drummer Jeremy Barnes, who played like his hair was on fire. Every fill was machine-gun spray. At times he threatened to trip himself up, so urgent and demanding was his playing.

It was Mangum’s birthday Thursday—how ’bout that—and though the singer didn’t directly respond to the many well-wishers who shouted celebrations his way, he appeared lighthearted throughout, a warm and welcoming smile plastered to his face. More than once, he commented into the microphone on how much love he felt for things—his band, the crowd, the people of Athens.

There was a whole lotta love in the air last night, at the euphoric end of a week most of Athens thought might never arrive. Now that it’s come and gone, we can only hope—our level of optimism steadily rising—that it comes again. Whatever happens, though, we won’t ever be able to recreate the magic of NMH’s unexpected homecoming, a punk rock party for our history books. Happy birthday, Jeff, indeed.


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