Day in, day out you wake up to the routine, the daily grind - sometimes without even thinking about it. But consider this: as we get older, and our routines and patterns become more intricately stained with responsibility and bills, the one word that stood out in our youth as a burning emblem becomes a burden of self reflection: "why". Why do I wake up? Why do I go to the 7-11? Why do I buy neon band-aids? Why do I look at pictures of cats on the internet? Why do I eat frozen yogurt? Why do I do anything that I am not forced to do out of bodily necessity or personal integrity? Well, I bet you weren’t expecting a concert review that doubles as an existential crisis - but Concerted Effort is not just a witty play on words describing the excellent live music coverage provided therein. Ok, that’s exactly what it is - but I will point out that we all could learn a lot by observing these musicians, aka those of us that choose to explore the “why’s” of life and make it something beautiful, or “art,” if you will.
Calling something art is so subjective, and raises many more questions than it does any answers to the “why” question, but when the “artist” is present the whole interaction turns into something different. For instance, when Marina Abramović was present during her exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, she had to deal with the direct scrutiny of the millions of visitors the MOMA sees every day. Literally. Her exhibit was the artist herself staring at anyone who would sit across from her eight hours a day, for four months. There is the type of person that would choose to sit there and delight in the opportunity to be in the presence of the artist, while others may choose instead to dismiss it because their aesthetic tastes require something different than a staring contest. But then there is the type of person who would wonder “why?,” and in doing so they may have found a reason to find life that much more enjoyable; a reason to find life beautiful.
The music of Neutral Milk Hotel, written and sung by Jeff Mangum, is a testament to the courage of art to find beauty in everyday life. His two albums are '90s pop-music at their core, with accents of unfamiliar instruments and words that seem to rebel against the very spine of the songs they are apart of. Mangum’s words are pure poetry: he sings about bodies and feelings like a teenager in love for the first time, but his subject is dark and he approaches it through complicated themes. His words resemble Leaves of Grass in the sense that his ode is grating and doesn’t hold back from the grit of what is dirty, deplorable and acidic in everyday life. For a lot of us, we can say where we were and what we were doing when we first listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. It leaves a mark - or in many cases it’s more of a scar because you will never get rid of that one memory. How many albums, musicians or “artists” can claim to have that effect on a person? And how often do we really take the time to appreciate that effect? For me, Jeff Mangum’s songs from Aeroplane will always remind me of the time in my life when I was 16 and had just gotten over the chicken pox. If being a teenager wasn’t awkward enough, try adding chicken pox to the mix, and a part-time job at TCBY, and then let’s make it Christmas time. I was given this album as a Christmas present from a friend and I will never forget that moment.
Two members of the popular '90s alternative band Elf Power and one man who can claim to be a member of Neutral Milk Hotel all came to the stage as Jeff Mangum’s opening act. On first glance of the threesome’s set up, you might have guessed the group’s tour van was raided: two guitars were plugged into amps the size of children’s lunchboxes, a bongo drum sat atop a stool with two wire brushes as drumsticks, and then there was a cello bow, a beer bottle, a (toy?) saxophone and an accordion. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I weren’t seeing it with my very own eyes. Unfortunately I can’t show you what I saw to corroborate my story. With a very strict no-photo policy at the show, I still tried to capture the beer-bottle-as-guitar-pick part of the performance by Laura Carter, Scott Spillane and Andrew Reiger but my lack of stealth and the determination of the stage crew left me empty-handed. These three musicians were given a unique opportunity by Mangum in the sense that they weren’t really expected to do anything other than what they wanted; there were no albums to sell and no merchandise to hawk. The group set out to impress us with unexpected sounds and songs.
The band covered Randy Newman’s “Germany Before the War” - which if you listen to the original song, you wouldn’t take it to be a crowd-pleaser to share with a massive audience on tour. Newman’s version is brooding, slow and full of tinkling piano chords that sound like the background music to a lonely walk in the park after your ice cream scoop fell off the cone. Reiger’s take on the song made it sound more like a sweet lullaby; it was endearing and an incredible choice to preface Mangum’s set which would include his Aeroplane songs about Germany during that war (the album is based on the life of Anne Frank). Another great cover featured Scott Spillane as he took on “Strangers Out of Blue” by St. Thomas - the vocals from the original and that night’s cover were equally matched, it was a great choice for the evening. The crowd was getting a little restless, and responded favorably as Spillane sang about taking a girl home and “biting her on the ear.” For the most part, the songs that Laura, Scott and Andrew performed that evening were 90s-era indie pop gems that were mostly identifiable by the quirky lyrics. I don’t know what it is - something about it just reminds me of Empire Records, or the Cranberries. This quality was most apparent in the closing song, “Glue”: “But I won’t die, the pain is so beautiful . . . it smells like glue.” When I hear these songs, part of me wants to laugh and part of me wants to scratch my head as I wonder if I’m missing some bigger theme, but all the while I’m still left enchanted by the catchy music and will recite the lyrics regardless of what they mean for days.
Jeff Mangum’s explicit request to not be photographed in any way should have been the featured guest cited on the Ogden’s marquee; a smooth, radio-dj voice came on the Ogden speakers to announce this request moments before Mangum approached the stage. His appearance and demeanor seemed to have not aged since the release of Aeroplane - himself remaining a treasure forever stuck in history marking the time he made the most impact.
Mangum’s setup included a humble stool with five acoustic guitars waiting beside it. Mangum tuned a guitar and mentioned to the crowd, “I’m sorry this is taking a while - this guitar is very old, it belonged to my grandfather.” Responding quickly to some banter from the crowd he went straight into “Song Against Sex” - in true grandfather-ly form. Mangum sang impeccably as he presented musical gems that had aged ten years, sometimes more. “Holland, 1945” is a completely different ode without the fuzzy, electric guitars and drums of the original album recording, and Mangum carried most of his performance with the zeal to compensate for an entire band. But, slowly an entire band began to join him on stage as the night progressed. Mangum took a moment to address the audience after a few songs, and tell us about how he lived in Denver for a few years and was glad to be back in the city where his two albums were recorded.
Laura and Scott came out with the brass accompaniment towards the end of “Oh, Comely,” marking the first appearance of any band members to join Mangum on stage. Mangum addressed the crowd to voice his appreciation for the positive reception he had that evening. “I’m so glad I decided to do this again. It’s been a while. But, you know . . . I need my people.” For “Two-headed Boy,” a single drum, and the two horns, with Laura doubling with the accordion once more, all came out to serenade Mangum as he prepared to leave the stage before his last encore song, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. For these last two songs, the entire theater reverberated with the voices of all in attendance who most likely sang along to these songs a hundred times or more. One may have wondered if Mangum was performing for the people or, as he put it “[his] people” were performing for him.
Before his encore song and as he departed for the evening, Mangum did this thing where he rose from his stool, did a quick bow, a small wave and then he headed stage left, pausing for a moment to turn once more and give a last wave before he would exit. The way he carried himself off the stage reminded me of seeing a child get up and leave after a violin recital. Much more than a violin recital, but maybe not anything more, Mangum’s music that night at the Ogden was absolutely beautiful.