By: Corey McComb
It’s a mixed bag tonight inside the North Park Theater. Couples in their forties raise wine glasses with PBR swilling youth, while paisley church dresses are clashing against fishnet stockings and leather shorts. Behind me a father is escorting his blue haired daughter, freshly marked X’s on her hands, towards a merch table. A multigenerational wave of teenage angst, both fresh and repressed, has come together tonight to witness indie rocks quintessential white whale, Neutral Milk Hotel.
More folklore than royalty, NMH have spent the last 15 years on hiatus due to front-man Jeff Magnum’s mental breakdown back in 1998. One of the most influential and unrecognized bands of the last 20 years, they have prefaced this tour as the last. Tonight will be their first and only San Diego show.
As the house lights fade out Magnum’s entrance is met with pure celebration. The flock is screaming and hugging as if the mere sight of him is cathartic enough. The band slowly follows and kicks into “Holland 1945”. To our delight they continue to play almost all the songs off their legendary album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. You could cut the nostalgia with a knife as an up-beat, yet melancholy ambience takes us all back to the place where that record kept us company so many years ago.
In-between Magnums unsettling howls, the band plays musical chairs by bringing out everything from french horns, electric bagpipes, and even a metal saw used as a fiddle. The crowd shouts the lyrics of “Oh Comley” back to Magnum like they’re reciting scripture. And, much to the chagrin of 1200 instagram accounts, seem to obey the no photography request as if a camera flash might startle the musical unicorn back into hiding.
After a three song encore full of drum pummeling and trumpet solos, the band left their reclusive leader on stage alone to bring us to tears with “Two Headed Boy part 2”. With the last cord ringing out Magnum addresses us for first time through a thick Amish-like beard with a muttered “Thank you”.
The highlight of the night was not one particular song, but the celebration of music that none of us thought we would ever hear live. Shrouded in mystery, their absence has bred mythology; we came here not just for music, but for closure.