The Breeders — Photo by Monique Hernandez
Neutral Milk Hotel might very well be the original, quintessential hipster band. I remember hearing the bands name in the 90’s and thinking that they might have the worst band name in the history of bad band names. Still not sure if it’s some obscure reference I’m not privy to. The story of the group and Jeff Mangum’s well documented retreat from a dimly lit spotlight are fodder for folks who wanted to feel like they uncovered an unappreciated gem during the period of the band’s long hiatus. One thing is clear, NMH have many more fans now than when they first emerged through the whirlwind of Mangum’s early nomadic ways that spanned between Seattle, Colorado, Athens Ga and New York. After rejecting an offer to tour with R.E.M. in the late 90’s and many more subsequent requests to play shows during the hiatus, NMH became the girl who rejected you in High School. Listening to old releases and bootlegs of live shows past was like looking at old pictures from a time in your life you were too drunk to be present in, wondering if those memories ever happened at all.
Last night, Neutral Milk Hotel got together with the Breeders and Daniel Johnston to play a show on a starry night at the Hollywood Bowl. The lineup for the evening was like a talent show at an insane asylum. Three different acts, all savants of music. I personally was most excited to see Johnston and the Breeders. I slept on NMH until the last few years until recently recognizing the lyrical prowess of Mangum and the powerful arrangements of music that sound much better live than on some of their muddled recording and bootlegs.
Daniel Johnston appeared to be in very bad shape as he emerged from the wings of the Hollywood Bowl. He came out slowly and deliberately with a walker, pausing the start of his set to make sure he had the perfect chair to sit in. Stage hands brought out two different versions of stools and Johnston audibly remarked that he needed a real chair. He commented that he had taken a few bad falls lately, undoubtedly the explanation of his need for a walker and the perfect seat. Once the music started, he was steady, even as his body shook like a leaf throughout the entirety of his performance. Undoubtedly, the walker and the search for a chair shortened his set but still managed to bang out songs like “Speeding Motorcycle”, “True Love Will Find You In The End” and a cover of the Beatles’, “I’m So Tired”. This performance was a rare treat and with Johnston performances you always ask yourself, “Is this the last chance I’m going to get to see this mad genius?”.
This show moonlighted between business, pleasure and a much needed date night with my beautiful bride. She was excited to see the Breeders. On our journey from the parking lot to the press area, the gentleman who drove us in a golf cart asked us if we were there to see Neutral Milk Hotel. My girl commented that she was there to see the Breeders and he lit up like a Christmas tree, pulled out a piece of paper and showed us writing that only said, “Elliot ‘hearts’ Kim Deal”. It seemed like the perfect night for a date and my lady was able to forget about the day-to-day grind of our lives, only commenting once how much it drives her crazy that I hadn’t “cleaned up that chair” yet. I was actually surprised at how few people came mainly to see The Breeders. I think Kim Deal was surprised too.
Technically a one hit wonder, The Breeders butchered, seemingly purposely, their most famous song, “Cannonball” but knocked it out of the park on everything else, including my favorite, “Walking With A Killer”. It was their original lineup that included her sister Kelley. The night featured some awkward banter between Kelley and herself, and Kim Deal fell into the trap so many artists playing LA venues like the Bowl do by being thrown off by a crowd that was still getting warmed up. As good as The Breeders were in form and function, as perfect as Deal’s voice was on every song, they would undoubtedly receive the response they desired headlining at the El Rey Theatre (as they did last year) rather than opening for NMH at The Bowl. Not sure how many attendees of this show know the legendary status of Kim Deal or that she was one of the main members of the Pixies. Even if you don’t like The Breeders, it’s like taking the position that you hated John Lennon’s solo career. Legends are legends and all people, “in the know” must bow down before a legend.
The crowd was undoubtedly there to see Neutral Milk Hotel. I don’t know why it surprised me so much even though they were the clear headliner. This was my second time seeing them live and unlike the Breeders, the crowd was very warm and got hotter and hotter the deeper NMH got into their set. After this show, I became a believer. There is no arguing Mangum’s virtuosity when it comes to song-writing but I wasn’t sold on the sonic resonance of the music until last night. They opened with “I Will Bury You In Time” and everything sounded perfect. It was a rare occasion that the big screens at the Bowl weren’t projecting the band and it’s performance but that was the specific request of Mangum and his notorious penchant as an agorophobe. By the time the band broke into “Two Headed Boy” I felt like the lack of projected visuals actually enhanced the experience, removing the extra stimuli and focusing entirely on the music at this beautiful and always magical night at the Hollywood Bowl.
Not only did my wife and I have a beautiful date night but my name was added to the growing list of appreciators of a vintage band like NMH that are still being discovered by so many. And yes, I got some last night. Bam!
Review by Danny Baraz
More features by the writer:
GBH and Adolescents deliver a vintage set to hardcore fans at the Fonda
Stiff Little Fingers and GFP ignite a skate punk fire at the El Rey Theatre
Ty Segall rumbles first night at The Echo despite a wallflower crowd